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Jane Wales

Jane Wales

Posted: September 1, 2010 05:22 PM

Over the past couple decades, civic engagement and participation have helped to improve governance and outcomes in the developing world.

To think how much more impact civic engagement could have with concrete evidence to bolster claims of efficacy.

In fact, a new British report says such evidence does exist -- it just hasn't been publicized on a large scale. The research is too often limited to single interventions or specific country contexts, or is otherwise constrained conceptually or methodologically. With funding by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), So What Difference Does It Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement goes a good way toward filling the research void. It also offers specific recommendations for donors. It synthesizes the results from a large sample of qualitative research -- 100 empirical studies on the subject from 20 countries. John Gaventa and Gregory Barrett of the Development Research Center on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability provide a sizable list of examples of how civic engagement has made a difference around the world. Based on its research synthesis, 75 percent of outcomes of civic engagement practices were positive, meaning that the efforts contributed to a greater sense of citizenship, strengthened practices of participation, more responsive government, or broader inclusion of previously marginalized groups, enhancing social cohesion.

Still, it doesn't often or even usually lead directly to policy or developmental action; it's often just an intermediate step toward producing such outcomes. And of course, civic engagement doesn't always lead to positive results -- some 25 percent of outcomes cited in the report were considered negative. For example, while engagement can contribute to social inclusion and cohesion, it can also occasionally contribute to a greater sense of exclusion, as new participatory processes or spaces can reinforce old hierarchies based on gender, caste or race. And naturally, efforts at civic engagement can run into bureaucratic "brick walls," or even governmental reprisals, including state-sanctioned violence, against those who challenge the status quo.

The authors identify six key implications from the research findings for activists, policymakers and donors. Among these:

  • Careful attention must be paid to the quality and direction of change, since positive outcomes of civic engagement can be mirrored by their opposite;

  • It's critical to recognize and support informal governance processes, such as associations and social movements not created by the state -- these can be important sources of positive change, especially in fragile or undemocratic settings -- ultimately helping to contribute to state responsiveness; and

  • Philanthropists and policymakers alike can play an important role in protecting and strengthening spaces for citizens to exercise their voice, and can support the right conditions for civic engagement to occur -- supporting broad social movements for both democracy and development, for example, or monitoring state reprisals against increased civic activism.

All told, the report calls for more understanding and better ways to measure and document civic engagement, on par with metrics for institutional arrangements such as fair elections, the rule of law and a free and open media. There are many indicators that could help demonstrate the degree to which the exercise of democratic citizenship is increasing, the authors note, including polling on awareness of rights, knowledge of legal and institutional procedures, disposition towards action, organizing skills and the "thickness" of civic networks.

Given this research, rather than question the value of civic engagement, we should instead focus on how to strengthen and encourage more of it. This report is the kind of synthesis that Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium called on philanthropy to help fund domestically. Perhaps it could serve as a model.