Like the common saying goes, there are three kinds of people: those who “make” things happen, those who “watch” things happen and those who “wonder” what happened. And though we would all like to believe that we fall into the first category, in terms of citizen participation most of us are very far from it. It is necessary to make a critical analysis and decide whether we are actively helping make the changes that we demand, whether we take interest and keep ourselves up to date with what goes on in our community or whether we at least make a conscientious, informed decision when we vote.
The first misconception is the belief that politics belong solely to politicians. While a citizen’s legal obligation is limited to voting (and in some countries not even that), their responsibility and power to generate positive change goes far beyond it. Some authors distinguish between three different depths of civic involvement. The first, formal participation, refers to those actions related to both the rights and duties that are constitutionally established such as voting, acting as officers during elections or presenting a project of law. A good example of this is the Argentinean organization “Fundación Americana para la Educación” that launched the campaign “Cuidá tu voto” (Care for your vote) which strives to generate awareness about the importance of voting responsibly by knowing the candidates, reading multiple sources of information and fully understanding how the electoral system works. A different type of involvement is that which arises from a specific need society feels. This spontaneous participation describes the actions taken and the organizations formed to address this need, which tend to disappear once the problem is solved. Examples of this are organizations offering aid when a natural disaster occurs, alphabetization and vaccination campaigns and the like. Finally, organized participation is the deepest, most permanent level of civic action. It implies a continuous commitment to progressively improve their society by generating lasting change. NGOs working to better the education system or demanding stronger, more comprehensive environmental regulations in an ever evolving social and business context, fall into this category. One of these is the Chilean “Educación 2020” striving to fundamentally improve the quality of education in that country before 2020. And none of these levels require joining a political party, none of this actions are out of our reach. So why is it that citizen participation is in general so low?
There are two immediate answers to this question: people don’t know how to get involved or people don’t want to be. If the first is true, who is at fault? Should it be every citizen’s duty to know all of their rights and ways to participate, the government’s responsibility to properly inform it or the very organizations’ interest to spread it further in order to get more adepts? However, if information is not the problem, we need to ask ourselves why there is such lack of interest or active opposition to getting involved in politics. In many Latin-American countries, the perception of politics as something corrupt or obscure causes political action to be somewhat looked down on and creates the notion that very little can be achieved by honest channels. Is this a strong enough deterrent for citizen participation or are there other underlying factors exerting influence? How irreversible is this situation?
Another point to consider is whether all civic involvement is desirable or not. What is good and what is fair has as many definitions as there are people and putting the common interest before your own is not easily done. Thus, and taking into account the current Latin-American social and political context, are we mature enough as a society to be able to profit from organized civic action or will it end up as a source of conflict, improvement blocked by differences of opinion? What, if any, is the role of education in fostering the success of this type of action? Social and religious institutions play a part too. They nucleate groups of people who respect them as opinion referents and hence their considerable influence. How far is it right for them to remain neutral towards political action? And should they intervene, what benefits or detriments could be derived from it?
One vital point of view remains to be considered: that of the government itself. On the one hand, citizen involvement can legitimize projects, decisions and even leadership and this endorsement may be the difference between failure and success. On the other hand, it may also hinder these actions by causing decision-making to be difficult and time-consuming. So where does the line lie? Under what conditions is it advantageous for a government to encourage citizen participation?
There are three kinds of people, and being one of those who make things happen requires a lot more than just the will to take action. What else is required for us to be successful? How can we take the necessary, timely action that will achieve the change we seek, truly boosting the impact of our efforts?