Civic Education: Laying the Groundwork for Democracy
November 1, 2016
Civic education—through which citizens learn how their country’s government works and how they can participate—manifests itself in many ways around the world and plays a key role in emerging democracies. Programs that foster civic education include voter education, neighborhood conflict-solving initiatives, and participation in city hall or local government institutions. The relationship between an informed, active citizenry and an accountable, transparent government is clear; 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.
For the United States and other mature democracies, working with young, developing democracies fosters understanding, peace, and increased prosperity. Good governance—especially accountable, transparent governance—is a hallmark of vibrant democracies and creates a platform on which strong international ties can be built. However, maintaining an accountable government requires that citizens understand the role of government officials, the purpose of government institutions, and the social compact that exists between citizens and their government. Civic education programs teach citizens all of these important lessons and equip citizens to take an active role in their government through voting, participating in local government, or community activism. For this reason, civic education generates long-term value for developing as well as developed countries.
There are several challenges to creating civic education programs abroad. First, replicable models for a national civic education plan or curriculum do not exist, which contributes to the high cost of civic education programs; what has worked in one country will not necessarily work in another due to the highly specific nature of civic education programs and the differences in government style and structure.
A second challenge to civic education is funding. Civic education programs are not extensively funded or prioritized, and only a few organizations worldwide work on civic education. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), for example, primarily focuses on providing technical electoral assistance and voter empowerment programs. To contribute to their goal of genuine, democratic, and transparent elections, voter inclusion, and enfranchisement, IFES also partners with governments to provide school-based as well as extracurricular civic education and voter education programs. There are also civic education programs focused on the United States, including those of the Center for Civic Education and Constituting America. The Center for Civic Education provides civics textbooks and lesson plans for schools to use, while Constituting America holds competitions that focus on the importance of the U.S. Constitution. These programs rely significantly on donations, which can limit the scope of their programming.
In post-conflict states, civic education programs hold an especially important role, as rebuilding trust in the government and educating the voter base on what to expect is crucial to creating a strong democratic foundation. Beyond teaching citizens how to participate in new or reformed electoral processes and how to practice democracy actively in their communities, civic education combats disillusionment among voters and opens a dialogue between government officials and citizens. Additionally, creating an informed voter base holds the government accountable and enables voters to notice, understand, and take action when their rights are not upheld.
Democracy is perpetuated and maintained by the youngest members of a society; as the younger generation learns about their government, begins to vote, and enters into government jobs, they shape the future of their nation’s democratic institutions. However, recent studies have found a “lack of trust by youth in the traditional institutions of democracy,” according to Joan Sawe of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). Youth today have unprecedented access to information, but with over 85 percent of those under 25 living in developing countries, they have little access to vehicles for decisionmaking, such as elections or holding office in local government.
Case Study: Georgia
IFES has worked in Georgia since 1995, focusing on activities that support democracy and election processes. Currently, the civic education curriculum that IFES created is implemented in 27 universities and higher education institutions in the country, with more 7,000 alumni throughout Georgia. Beyond this face-to-face program, IFES has worked with marginalized groups including ethnic minorities, women, and persons with disabilities in order to increase knowledge around and access to political processes and decisionmaking. A primary focus of this work has been on voter registration, both in encouraging nonregistered citizens to register and vote as well as increasing confidence in the existing registry through technical improvements and public outreach.
This program has incorporated young people into the electoral process and increased confidence in and understanding of government institutions. Students of the program comment that they believe that the government is designed to serve the people, and they are equipped with confidence and knowledge to participate in their communities and their country.
However, without a consistent curriculum or a successful model that can be replicated around the world, creating functional civic education programs, like the IFES program in Georgia, is a slow process that must be individually tailored to the needs of each region in which it is implemented. Creating self-sustaining programs is a challenge as well; funding for civic education is not a priority for many governments. Civic education programs need local leadership; unless a community wants to learn and invites in civic education instructors, progress will be slow or nonexistent.
New media outlets, including social media platforms, represent an opportunity to spread information inexpensively and quickly without significant local infrastructure such as classrooms and teachers. However, access to the Internet in the developing world can be unreliable, and the impact of digital campaigns is untested and unmeasured, unlike formal classes and in-person lessons.
Low-tech avenues for teaching civic responsibility, including mandatory volunteerism for schoolchildren, tours of government buildings, and in-school voter registration days can perhaps create a more immediate solution for areas without access to more expensive civic education programs. Involving the broader private sector may be the missing link for sustainable civic education.
In the past several decades, the world has become more democratic, more free, and more prosperous. This has led to an increased demand for accountable, transparent governance. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals include transparent, just governance as a priority for the next 15 years. Civic education can create a foundation for good governance, but many questions remain in terms of future research, execution, and evaluation of civic education programs:
- Where should this education take place? Without a replicable model for civic education, each country must determine what method of education best suits citizens’ needs. Civic education in primary school, during college, or through religious or social groups each target different audiences, and the benefits of each must be weighed.
- What should the curriculum contain? Civic education programs can focus on local, regional, or national governments, citizen activism and involvement, rule of law, practices and policies, anticorruption efforts, or justice and the court system. Choosing how to present this information in a way that makes the most measurable impact is key to creating a cohesive and actionable lesson plan for civics students.
- What role can and should the United States and other international donors play?
- Who is responsible for funding programs? Though aid dollars can serve as catalysts for new civic education programs, it is crucial that local governments take responsibility for programs’ longevity and content. Creating a balance among initial technical assistance, development of local capacity and sustainability, and long-term funding will help ensure that programs do not rely too heavily on international support.
Daniel F. Runde holds the Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis and directs the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He is also on the Board of Directors of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Erin Nealer is a research assistant with the CSIS Project on U.S. Leadership in Development.
(This Commentary is informed by the discussion at the CSIS Schreyer Chair Dinner on Civic Education, which focused on the challenges and opportunities present in civic education programs and was led by Daniel F. Runde.)
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.Photo credit: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images