Discussion: Democracy & Active Citizenship

April 10, 2014

At the Imagine Change! forum on the theme “Democracy & Active Citizenship”, participants were asked to identify five key characteristics of an ideal active citizen. Some of the qualities mentioned were: compassionate, well-informed, questioning, sense of belonging/community spirit, able to engage in diverse views, adapting to change, curious, brave, assertive, proactive, good listener, inclusive, honest and hard-working.

Secondly, participants were asked to think about what causes or issues they care about enough to make a difference. Answers included: public libraries, volunteer service delivery, education for democracy, waste management & recycling, food security, income gap, creating a culture of learning, climate change, lack of recreational facilities in rural areas, or empowerment of disadvantaged girls.

Participants were then asked to list different types of citizen participation or social action, especially for the issues identified in the second question. Types of civic action listed were: being vocal about issues, direct action on personal level (recycling, bringing your own bag for shopping, educating family & friends), working through NGOs, advocating towards government to increase resources, engage with parents and schools, interacting with local farmers (buying and growing local food), highlighting the income gap and the plight of farmers, perseverance, promoting public library system and community resource centers, talking to youth outside Thimphu, creating awareness on needs vs. wants (sustainable consumption), co-creating recreational facilities, or engaging in non-formal teaching.

A fierce debate on what democracy means took place: whether democracy means rule of majority by minority, or if it should be inclusive democracy where the majority listens to the needs of minorities.

There was broad agreement on the importance of trust in democracy and encouraging active citizenship. The space for individual action and civil society organisations was seen limited due to a lack of trust and understanding of what CSOs and citizens can do, perpetuated by government being the main provider of services to its citizens. At the organization level, example was given on how important it is to support, groom and motivate volunteer members, to spend time with them and entrust them with the responsibility of coordinating a project. Motivation and support from the leader is crucial in creating this atmosphere. It is also important to give space for mistakes and to recognize they are valuable opportunities for learning.

Some key points made at the forum were:

  • There is a need to shift from an attitude of entitlement to that of a responsible citizen, from being an observer in democracy to being an active participant.
  • Democracy is all about interdependence, inclusiveness and critical thinking: all ages, all genders, diverse people and different views are needed to make democracy work.
  • Some of the benefits of increased citizen participation in local governance are: 1. Better legitimacy when people take part in the whole process of development, find solutions and take ownership; 2. Principle of subsidiarity, the need for people to prioritize things themselves; 3. Using limited resources wisely; and 4. Lessening the burden on the state when communities take up responsibility for their own development.
  • Ways to better organize citizen participation on the local level include more awareness using technology, focusing on research and evaluation (what works and what does not), and local governments collaborating more with different sectors, such as media, CSOs, academia, and private sector.
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