Guest Post: Democracy Building That Works

The below guest post is authored by Charles N. Quigley. Mr. Quigley is the executive director of the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit organization promoting education for democracy in the United States and in more than 70 other countries.

Building democracy is often an announced goal of U.S.-funded public diplomacy programs. However, there’s democracy building, and then there’s democracy building. Lately, the term has been getting a bad name. As must certainly be evident by now, there is no “do-it-yourself democracy kit” that can be dropped into a country whose citizens, regardless of prior experience, will then spontaneously organize themselves according to the instructions provided. The arrival of a new administration in Washington, D.C. provides an opportunity to reinvigorate democracy building through support for programs that empower a new generation of citizens for democratic participation.

Just as true liberty is more than the absence of constraint, building true democracy requires more than deposing a tyrant. As Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and other Founders of this country understood, democracy begins with education. We may be born with the status of citizen, but to become citizens in the true, democratic sense of the term requires three things–things we are not born with: civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions. Democracy requires an understanding of the principles of democratic self-rule; an ability to participate in public deliberation in an informed, competent way; and habits like tolerance, nonviolence, a proper concern for the rights and well-being of others and the community as a whole, and a willingness to act on that concern.

Explaining to someone how democracy is supposed to work addresses only one of these three requirements–perhaps not even the most significant one, given that human beings learn more by example and experience than from books or pamphlets. As for skills, these are acquired mainly in practice. And, in societies debilitated by war, civil strife, social division, marginalization, or authoritarianism, democratic dispositions like tolerance, nonviolence, and concern for others are often in short supply.

U.S.-funded civic education programs implemented internationally by the Center for Civic Education and similar organizations–especially those that involve experiential learning like the Project Citizen program–build democracy not by imposing it on unwilling or ambivalent populations, but by showing young citizens the empowering effects of democratic engagement. Working in teams, Project Citizen students identify a public policy problem in their community, gather and evaluate information about it, including alternative solutions, develop a public policy proposal to address the problem, and develop an action plan to implement their proposal.

Research on Project Citizen is very encouraging. For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina Project Citizen has been shown to foster respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights; diminish support for authoritarianism; promote increased tolerance, including religious tolerance; and improve political knowledge and participatory skills.

Students have used the skills taught by Project Citizen to address problems ranging from industrial pollution in Mali, child labor in Ghana, human rights abuses in Bosnia and Herzegovina, effects of tax policies on businesses in Indonesia, and forced marriages in Jordan. The work of Project Citizen students from eight countries was featured at this year’s AFI Film Festival in a new documentary film entitled The World We Want. By analyzing and proposing solutions to local public policy issues, students are empowered with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions key to civic engagement in a democracy. Needless to say, the engagement and enthusiasm they bring to their projects is an inspiration to both peers and elders. In many cases, Project Citizen students are successful in persuading public officials to take action.

It is projects such as these–democracy building at its best–that will be highlighted in Cape Town, South Africa this May at the 13th World Congress on Civic Education. More than two hundred educators from the more than 65 countries that participate in the Civitas International Civic Education Exchange Program will gather there to share their experiences and discuss best practices as well as the progress of education for democracy in each of their countries.

International civic education is a kind of democracy building that is not only cost-effective–site budgets for programs like Project Citizen are counted in thousands, not millions or billions of dollars–it also promotes responsibility and independence rather than dependency. Of course, such programs also promote good will and mutual understanding through the involvement and exchange of educators from the U.S. and other countries. With funding provided by the U.S. Department of Education under the Education for Democracy Act, and additional support from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and others, the Center for Civic Education draws on its broad international network of civic educators to help others adapt and implement programs like Project Citizen in their countries. The goal is to persuade institutions and governments to support the development and implementation of effective, student-oriented civic education programs by demonstrating their effectiveness and benefits, as well as the willingness of educators from the U.S. and other countries to help each other in this important task.

Yet, despite the success of such programs, the resources that the United States and its democratic allies devote to education for democracy remain relatively scant. Though the American public’s patience for grandiose, high-cost democracy-building projects has clearly been challenged, we urgently need to counter antidemocratic movements around the globe. International civic education programs powerfully address the goal of promoting a more democratic and peaceful world and deserve greater attention and support.