Villagers in Salima District, Malawi, take part in a UN-supported citizen’s assembly
Villagers in Salima District, Malawi, take part in a UN-supported citizen’s assembly. Credit: newDemocracy/Edwin Msewa
01 June 2023

Activating ‘citizen mode’ to support democracy from the ground up

The UN is promoting the direct participation of citizens in decisions that affect them and their communities, and rebuild trust in democracy.

Against a backdrop of growing misinformation, political polarization, and a breakdown in trust between citizens and those who govern them, the UN is promoting the direct participation of citizens in decisions that affect them and their communities and rebuild trust in democracy.

The right of citizens to take part in democratic processes has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for 75 years, but even in nations with established democracies, it can never be taken for granted.

In recent years, the UN has increasingly focused on finding ways to restore frayed links between people and their governments by encouraging greater involvement of citizens in decision-making and policy discussions.

Civil society organizations (CSOs), in collaboration with the UN, are finding that citizen’s assemblies are a highly effective way of bringing together diverse members of local communities to work on policies and projects that directly affect them.

In May, Aleida Ferrayra, Global Lead for Democratic Institutions and Processes at the UN Development Programme, and representatives of three CSOs – Cynthia Mbamalu, Director of Programs at Yiaga Africa; Silvia Cervellini, the co-founder of Delibera Brasil; and Iain Walker; the Executive Director of the newDemocracy Foundation – discussed the role of civil society in well-functioning democracies, during the recording of an SDG Roundtable video, moderated by Annemarie Hou, Executive-Director of UN Partnerships.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length

Cynthia Mbamalu Nigeria has a growing and large youth population, and one of the things we've learned is that young people want to be part of the solution. They want to be heard.

We create safe spaces for youth dialogue, where diverse groups of young people learn by having conversations about policies. Whatever decisions come out of those conversations can feed into government actions.

But we need to go further, to help young people move from student union movements into mainstream politics, and learn how to advocate for policies that affect issues of concern to youth.

Silvia Cervellini Brazil has a citizen’s constitution, which has led to the creation of important institutions, such as the National Conference of States and Municipal Councils, but there needs to be a constant effort to ensure that participation is truly universal.

In our experience, we repeatedly witness what we call “citizen mode” being activated, when different people work together to figure out the best possible solution for the common good, even in a time as polarized as ours.

Iain Walker We all want to have a say in the decisions which affect us as citizens. Citizens assemblies are a step to rounding out that role.

One reason is that they are a great chance to mix. We get people from all walks of life – old and young, white collar, blue collar, rich and poor – and put them into one room, to see what we can agree on.

Cynthia Mbamalu A lot of young people want to participate but, in Nigeria, there’s a huge trust deficit between citizens and the government.

This is why we provide support for young people to promote the idea of electoral participation, so that they are the ones driving the conversation, and mobilizing their peers.

Silvia Cervellini Trust goes both ways. We use any excuse to invite political leaders to trust the people, and when they see that citizens are involved in a participatory process, they trust them to give the best answers to a problem.

When you have the mayor, or city councillors saying, “I need your help to solve this”, people feel a sense of responsibility to make decisions for others who are not in the room.

And this is the magic of the “citizen’s mode”: they are not thinking about their individual interests or their preference. They are thinking, what's the best for everybody.

Iain Walker We all tend to trust people a bit like us, yet parliamentarians often seem to be living in a remote and different world.

Ireland has been a pioneer in creating projects that put randomly selected people and members of parliament in the same process: after spending several days together, they realize that the MPs aren’t that different from them.

Politicians are used to people coming to them emphasizing disagreement, and we always see a breakthrough at citizen’s assemblies, when they say “wow, people really took this problem seriously, and worked to find an agreement”.

This is how we can rebuild trust in electoral democracy, 50 or 100 people at a time, to create a more trusted, cohesive society.

Aleida Ferrayra Without open, vibrant civil society, social contracts – which allow people to have a say in what matters to their lives – cannot exist.

This means that the UN Development Programme needs to work with governments and state actors to enhance that participation, supporting them on how to include people in participation and political processes, but we also work with civil society actors, providing guidance on freedom of expression and association.

Credit: Delibera Brasil
Citizens in Fortaleza, Brazil, take part in a UN-supported citizen’s assembly. Credit: Delibera Brasil

Support for civil society and human rights at the UN

2023 marks 75 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This landmark offers solutions to many of today’s most pressing challenges and is a roadmap to a common future of dignity, freedom, and justice for all.

In a video released by his Office in May, Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for “a vibrant and open civic space for effective and transparent governance and institution building, to achieve progress on sustainable development, prevention, and peacebuilding”.

Yiaga Africa works to increase the engagement of young people in the democratic process and, with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), launched #SixtyPercentOfUs in May 2022, a project aimed at mobilizing at least 60 per cent youth voter registration.

Delibera Brasil, which organizes UNDEF-backed citizen’s assemblies, enabling the residents of Brazilian cities to directly participate in policy making to address poverty and inequality.

The new Democracy Foundation, which, with UNDEF funding, has helped countries bring underserved communities into the political system, and produced a handbook on so-called “democracy beyond elections”, explaining how the principles of representation and deliberation can be applied to nations at different levels of development.

The UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) is a grant-making body described as a fund for civil society organizations (CSOs), aimed at strengthening the voice of civil society, promoting human rights, and encouraging the participation of all groups in democratic processes. By supporting CSOs on the ground, UNDEF plays a distinct role in complementing the more traditional work of the UN to strengthen democratic governance globally.