Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Levels of Citizenship

A few weeks ago I attended another “development dinner,” an informal dinner party organized by a marvelous group of South Africans and expats concerned about the state of this country.  They meet once a month, drink copious amounts of wine, eat delicious food, and discuss various development issues.

For the past few months they have largely focused on active citizenship.  The last meeting, however, was the first one of 2013 and, as a result, the chairman decided it was time to pause and reflect on the actual definition of an active citizen.

A series of questions emerged: What’s the difference between a good person who tries to improve the lives of those around him/her and an active citizen?  Does active citizenship need to somehow involve the government?  How informed do you need to be?  How engaged with social issues?

Although I didn’t share the following with the group, it seemed to me that they were talking about three different levels of citizenship: informed, engaged, and active.

I would define each as the following:

  • An informed citizen is someone who not only follows current events, but also takes the time to understand underlying issues.  Watching the evening news is not enough.
  • An engaged citizen votes and goes to local community meetings.  He/she signs petitions and may even write letters to government officials if he/she has a specific grievance.
  • Active citizens take matters into their own hands.  They may be working with a socially-engaged company or in the government, actively trying to change the status quo from the inside.  Or they might use external pressure to create change.

As the discussion progressed, it reminded me of a conversation I had with my father at Christmas.  He asked me what political blogs and alternative news media I follow.  I told him that I listen to the radio, but I don’t follow any online writers.

He accused me of being uninformed.  Me!  I got defensive and exclaimed, “I have a full-time job!  I don’t have time to sit around and read online articles all day!”

Then I calmed down and asked him for a list of website recommendations.

The reason I got defensive, however, was because of the truth in my dad’s allegation.  I’ve always had strong political opinions, but often they’re based on half the story.  Frequently I don’t take the time necessary to really research a topic before either condemning it or praising it.

And I act on my biased opinions.  I basically moved to the other side of the world on the assumption that I’d be doing “good work” over here.

I think that most of the passionate people I’ve met need to make the jump from an informed citizen to an engaged or active citizen.  I, on the other hand, need to step back and become more informed.

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