NDI’s Mission to Increase and Strengthen Citizen Participation
Deepening democracy so it can provide tangible improvements to people’s lives is an overarching objective of NDI’s citizen participation programs. Making democracy work requires informed and active citizens who understand how to voice their interests, act collectively and hold public officials accountable. Citizens must understand ideas about citizenship, politics and government. They need knowledge to make decisions about policy choices and the proper use of authority, along with the skills to voice their concerns, act collectively and hold public officials accountable. They also need to have the desire to exercise their rights, and they need the political space to do so without unreasonable resistance or harassment from authorities or others.
NDI’s citizen participation programs – including support of civic and voter education, get-out-the-vote efforts, issue organizing and advocacy, budget oversight and government monitoring – help citizens master the techniques needed to initiate action, solve complex problems and become leaders in their own right.
For more than 20 years, NDI has conducted programs to activate and empower citizens and civic groups, establish strong civic cultures and achieve an appropriate balance of power between citizens and government.
About Citizen Participation
NDI’s citizen participation programs are intended to increase and strengthen the organized and active political involvement of citizens. Much of the work focuses on helping citizens engage public officials and political leaders on substantive issues of community concern. NDI helps citizens take actions that help transform the way government, parliaments and parties behave and the way politics is practiced, instead of bypassing these institutions altogether. Whether advocating for specific policies, providing expertise on poverty issues, monitoring the implementation of a policy, or raising awareness about needs, citizens can contribute to a government’s willingness and ability to work on behalf of citizens.
NDI believes that democracy programs are most successful when they support indigenous efforts for change. Citizens around the world desire accountable and responsive political institutions, yet NDI does not presume to impose solutions on local partners. Nor does it believe that one democratic system can be replicated elsewhere. Rather, NDI shares experiences and offers a range of options, so that leaders and activists can select those practices and institutions that may work best in their own circumstances. NDI also has a long tradition of promoting solidarity among democratic activists the world over and helping them share lessons with one another.
NDI's approach generally involves partnering with local civic groups to help them develop the capabilities needed to undertake organized political actions, such as civic and voter education efforts, issue advocacy campaigns, political-process monitoring initiatives, and community organizing campaigns. In each case, NDI introduces groups to various tools and techniques.
NDI recognizes, however, that empowering citizens requires more than encouraging participation or providing tools. It also must mean helping citizens master the organizing techniques (e.g. issue identification and analysis, planning, resource management, deliberation, communication, fundraising, and evaluation) and develop the know-how required to take collective action, solve complex problems, and become leaders in their own right.
Throughout the course of a given citizen participation program, NDI assists its local partners as they climb a "ladder of participation" that starts with loosely organized, politically inactive groups on the bottom rung and well-organized and politically influential groups on the top. NDI guides groups from one level to the next using a mix of assistance tools that heavily emphasize the practice of "learning by doing." NDI also seeks to engage local groups higher up the ladder to serve as role models, mentors, and facilitators for their counterparts at lower levels. NDI has documented this process in places like Croatia and Sierra Leone, where the Institute has helped local groups capture their successful experiences in toolkits and training courses that can now be accessed by less developed groups.
NDI also concentrates on helping groups think strategically about their actions and take concerted steps to increase their strength and influence over public officials and political processes. Over the course of NDI's involvement, the political engagement of local civic partners becomes more sophisticated and substantive. The Institute's approach often is to first help establish the precedent for citizen participation and then foster a practice that is not centered on one person or group but that extends across a community.
In most cases, NDI's citizen participation programs involve an in-country presence. This allows NDI representatives to provide consistent support when citizens and civic groups begin organizing and participating in political processes. Although knowledge and skills could be conveyed to citizens through periodic visits to a country, or through publications and one-time seminars, NDI has found it is critical to guide citizens as they first apply newly acquired tools and techniques.
This assistance is given by NDI resident representatives who are best placed to understand the political environment and the level of development of local partners. The process entails coaching, providing structured feedback, and facilitating reflection exercises with partners. NDI labels this process "guided practice," and it complements seminars, conferences, training activities and resource materials. Additionally, NDI will sometimes use financial sub-awards as another device to help civic groups apply their learning. Although NDI is not a donor, the strategic injection of funds into an organization often allows the group to try new things and to learn from that experience.
Making Democracy Deliver
Democracy’s credibility and sustainability depends, to an important degree, on how it works in practice, and on what it delivers. New democracies must be able to move beyond organizing elections and forming institutions and begin to successfully tackle issues related to security, jobs, human rights, physical well-being and human development. Democracy should facilitate economic growth and deliver the means for people to achieve a better life, while protecting fundamental rights and ensuring that citizens are free from oppression and arbitrary government intrusion.
Helping democracy deliver requires a greater focus on the practice of democracy. Democratic practice emphasizes collective action and deliberation, and inclusive, evidence-based decision making. It also emphasizes access to information, a voice for citizens and accountability measures and mechanisms. In addition, it is concerned with the outcomes, recognizing the stark reality that if democracy fails to deliver just, visible socio-economic and environmental gains, its value as a process can be fatally undermined by discontent. There is a distinct possibility that dissatisfaction with democracy will lead to its failure under the strain of social conflicts.
Deepening democracy so that it can deliver tangible improvements in people’s lives has become an overarching NDI objective. NDI’s approach involves partnering with politically marginalized and socially excluded groups and helping them organize and use political processes to deal with tangible issues. It includes fostering substantive, sustained interactions between citizens and public officials. At the same time, it means assisting intermediary institutions like parliaments and political parties to develop their professional capacities and to work on behalf of citizens, in an effort to hold the state accountable to citizen interests and concerns.
Political Process Monitoring
Government planning, budgeting and spending are potential opportunities for citizens to participate in government. Citizens should be able to access information, influence priorities and hold public officials accountable. To help citizens participate, NDI supports citizen monitoring of the planning, budgeting and spending processes. Political-process monitoring involves compiling and analyzing information, developing and disseminating reports, and using the findings to raise public awareness and government responsiveness. In some cases, such processes begin with citizens advocating for freedom of information legislation to create mechanisms through which budget information can be accessed.
Increasingly, NDI is working with citizens at the local level to monitor delivery of core government services such as education and healthcare. By focusing on the services that have the greatest impact on their lives and the most potential to promote direct interaction with public officials, citizens derive tangible results from their participation and build a framework for future action. NDI has found that improving government service delivery can be a rallying point for sustained citizen involvement in political processes.
Young people are a major force in the contemporary world and are often at the forefront of global, social, economic and political developments. NDI views young people as part of the solution to the difficulties developing democracies face. NDI's focus group research has shown that young, first-time voters are more open to voting for new parties and more willing to change political allegiances. Since young people, by nature, are more inclined to change than older generations, they tend to be more idealistic in their goals and less loyal to established traditions. NDI has found that when the aspirations of youth are constructively channeled into the political process—for example by monitoring elections, community organizing, or becoming active political party members—they can become agents of positive change and contribute to sustained peace.
Citizen Participation and Political Parties
NDI does not view civil society organizations as an alternative to political parties. Political parties are a necessary element of a strong and vibrant democracy. Parties are unique organizations that fulfill a number of different, yet related, functions that are central to the democratic process. Parties vet political leaders and contest elections, form accountable and representative government, and consolidate public interests.
Since most citizens and civil society groups have more specific parochial interests, parties are necessary intermediary institutions capable of balancing and aggregating competing interests in a broader political arena. NDI works to inform citizens and civil society organizations about the importance of strong democratically organized parties, and likewise works to inform parties about the complementary roles of civil society organizations.
Our Relationships with Civic Partners
NDI's citizen participation programs usually involve assistance to local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or community-based organizations, including those that organize themselves around poor or marginalized communities, such as women, young people, ethnic minorities, or people with disabilities. NDI programs also help groups that organize themselves around issues, such as good governance, agriculture, health, education, or public safety. In every region where NDI operates, there are numerous examples of programs that help local organizations mobilize citizens, monitor political processes, increase public awareness and advocate for policy changes.
NDI strives to build "intimate" developmental partnerships with local organizations. During a 2005 evaluation of NDI's relationships with eight local partners in Romania, the groups characterized their relationship with NDI as a "friendship." To these groups, friendship meant that NDI responded to their needs and concerns, provided honest advice and thoughtful guidance on both their organizing and organizational development, and allowed them to make their own decisions. It also meant that NDI helped them understand when they made mistakes, and championed them to other organizations and institutions. These types of relationships reflect NDI's preferred partnership dynamic and help to ensure that NDI's assistance is desired, appreciated, and applied.
Developmental partnerships are built on the understanding that NDI is providing assistance so that the local partner is better able to carry out its mission. Success is measured by higher levels of performance, professionalism, and independence on the part of the local group, all of which are central to sustainability.
The Institute has found that when developmental partnerships are formalized, they are more effective. To achieve this, NDI often uses memoranda of understanding (MOUs). These are used to clarify and confirm the obligations and expectations between NDI and partner groups. An MOU can accomplish two important objectives: it reflects a partner group's political will to engage in specified types of organizational development and programmatic activity (e.g., developing a strategic plan, improving organizational management and recruiting more volunteers), and it articulates the level and type of support NDI will provide the groups for their organizational development and program effort.
Developmental partnerships feed into program monitoring, which is an equal responsibility of NDI and the partner. At the outset of each relationship, NDI works with groups to determine needs, how the needs can be addressed, and what constitutes success. Based on this understanding, NDI and the group can periodically assess progress against agreed-upon expectations. In this way, monitoring not only helps NDI determine what is working, it also provides a developmental opportunity for groups as it encourages them to be reflective and take ownership of their own development.
On a targeted basis, developmental partnerships may include financial sub-awards to local partners. In principle, sub-awards — combined with other forms of assistance — are used as a tool that helps local organizations improve their ability to run programs, interact with other funders, report programmatic results and manage money, to name a few capacity areas. Essentially, sub-awards enable organizations to learn by doing.
When first designing its programs, NDI incorporates the feedback and advice offered by local civic organizations and actors. In any initial program assessment, civic groups serve as key interlocutors when NDI is gathering information and clearly defining the development challenges. In some countries, such as Afghanistan, East Timor, and Liberia, NDI has partnered with local NGOs to conduct focus group research as a first step in understanding the attitudes of the citizenry before implementing programs.
For more information about these programs, use our contact form or dial our main telephone number: 1-202-728-5500.