There have been several papers lately on issues such as governance, democracy, national values, citizenship, and related topics, mostly analyzing the disruptions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Some astute observers have noted that we have similar concerns in the United States given the fault lines that became more obvious as a result of the 2016 presidential elections. The common thread is that political societies are constantly evolving, and technology is providing the means to accelerate and mobilize forces for change that are challenging how people are governed. The notion of “consent of the governed” is altering notions of the relationship between a government and the people.
In this blog, I want to look at “civic education,” the process by which citizens become acculturated to a country’s values and its political system.
I first became conscious of the importance of civic education in my eighth grade “civics” class, as it was then called, which looked at the United States and how it pursued its interests at home and abroad. There was no discussion about the correctness of the national values on which these interests were based. It was assumed that our values were the best model for any country to emulate. This experience focused my interest on wanting to make the US better understood in the world by engaging in programs that facilitated cross-cultural dialogue. As a son of immigrants, the US for our family was and still is something unique and full of promise. That hasn’t changed in the following 50+ years, and neither has the need for America having an open discussion about its priorities and interests.
Definitions of civic education have common elements. A recent paper by CSIS says “Civic education in schools and beyond teaches citizens how to vote, what their community needs are and what values it holds, and what the social compact between elected officials and their constituents means in practical terms.” A study of civic education in the Arab world conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace listed these characteristics, “This education for citizenship has three main components: knowledge of civic concepts, systems, and processes of civic life, including education for human rights and democracy; skills of civic participation; and students’ general disposition, including a sense of belonging to the state and shared values and ethics.”
The Arab Spring has challenged the notions of citizenship from a top-down perspective as young people and others feeling marginalized threw down the gauntlet to redefine their country’s social contract between the government and citizens, demanding accountability, economic opportunity, transparency, and political inclusion. How this still rings true today, with even more urgency, is underscored in a joint paper from the Atlantic Council and Brookings Institution as part of the Middle East Strategy Taskforce series. The paper, “Real security: Governance and stability in the Arab world,” argued, among other points, that governance was in the process of being redefined and the core issue was one of restoring social trust through dialogue and resolving conflicts at all levels.
One of the key elements raised by several of the panelists is that the process of reconstructing the social contract to achieve sustainable governance is a decentralized, bottom up approach based on local sensibilities and priorities. This means investing in civil society, civic education, and building out the political space for decision-making by local officials.
There are programs that can be helpful. NGOs such as Civitas and Street Law, enable young people and communities to proactively learn how democracy works, the roles of government and citizen, major influences shaping a country’s civic values, and many other topics. The CSIS article is clear that programs that work in one country will not necessarily work in another – an important caveat for those who think that democracy and governance programs can be implemented without thorough consideration of local sensibilities.
It also notes that what is critical in states going through transitions, whether through elections or post-conflict, is “rebuilding trust in the government and educating the voter base on what to expect…Civic education combats disillusionment among voters and opens a dialogue between government officials and citizens.” The importance of building trust with youth cannot be overstated, as they have “unprecedented access to information” but very low rates of participation in their countries’ political space, which is monopolized by traditional players.
The National Democratic Institute recently published a blog on the potential negative impact of social media on democracy. It builds on this point with the observation that “Social media and the Internet have had a drastic effect on the surprise results of yesterday’s election in the United States, driving the spread of information—and misinformation—at times bringing voters together and, perhaps more often, pushing them apart….It’s important to recognize that this is not a uniquely American trend.” A study across 26 countries indicates that more than half of Internet users use social media as a primary source of news, and more than 25% call it their main news source. Percentages may be even higher in developing countries with high Internet penetration.
The long-term challenge is to protect the government-citizen interaction from malicious and misleading attacks from external and internal foes. As NDI points out “Creating and protecting safe platforms on the web for genuine political discourse will require collaboration among a host of actors. Governments, technology companies, media outlets, the academic community and organizations around the world must come together to develop policies and practices to aid civil society and citizens in addressing this problem, and build norms and standards for democratic governments to support an open Internet.”
Protecting this valuable suite of tools for promoting democratic values in the coming years will require significant efforts to shield political discourse from those who would damage a country’s transition to a stronger national consensus on its key values. The need for inclusive dialog for countries in transition can have no better starting point than a refresher course on a country’s national values and social contract.