I have been speaking to many people and volunteers on being active citizens, working together, asking themselves “who am I” and “What change am I going to influence today”. Perhaps a very simplistic definition of ‘actively working together’ in a representative democracy like ours is to maintain a balance between our rights and responsibilities.
Let us put in it simple bullet points, what we have gathered about active citizenship:
- Right to engage in the creation and recreation of a democratic society
- Right to participate in all the democratic practices and institutions within that society
- Responsibility to ensure that no groups or institutions are excluded from these practices and institutions
- Responsibility to ensure that a broad definition of the political includes all relationships and structures within the social arrangement
As a follow-up to this understanding of ‘working together’, what evidently emerges is that the most significant dimension of ‘active citizenship’ is ‘social change’. So we now know who is an active citizen? Although there is no universally accepted definition, there is a general agreement that active citizens are those citizens who get involved in public life and affairs. These are citizens who actively become involved in their communities, tackling problems or bringing about ‘change’ or resisting unwanted change. They develop requisite skills, knowledge and understanding to be able to make informed decisions about their communities and workplaces with the aim of improving the quality of life in the society. In all, they constructively engage the society for the betterment of lives.
If the societies must function well, citizens must engage well as representatives and agents of ‘change’. Basic indicators that a society is headed towards constructive social change is citizens demonstrating interest in socio-economic and political matters, volunteering with organisations and networks, participating in interest groups, in peaceful protests, voicing themselves in public debates etc. Societal successes and change are not achieved by the sole effort of the constituted authority but by the collaborative effort of the citizens and the government.
Active citizenship is thus an important concept that brings together three well established principles of best-practice within development, namely the importance of participation and working together; rights-based approaches to development; and good governance. There is little doubt that active citizens are a powerful force for ‘good change’, and the focus on active citizenship will affect future development at the local, national and regional levels.