How does citizen engagement contribute to responsive governance? This paper summarises ten years of research from the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation, and Accountability, presenting the key findings of more than 150 case studies of citizen engagement. It argues that existing donor programmes fail to recognise the full potential of citizen engagement, resulting in lack of understanding of the complex relationship between citizens and the state that shapes governance outcomes. Citizens need greater political knowledge and awareness of rights and of agency as a first step to claiming rights and acting for themselves. Involvement in associations has been an effective way of strengthening notions of citizenship and citizen engagement, which can contribute to more responsive states.
A citizen is defined as someone with rights, aspirations and responsibilities to others in the community and to the state, implying a relationship among citizens, and between the state and all those living within its borders. Taking a citizen-centred approach puts citizens at the heart of state-building processes, viewing them as actors whose knowledge, voices, and mobilisation can make a contribution to solving key problems. This view is in sharp contrast to many other approaches to development and democracy that understand citizens as having passive or responsive roles. A citizen-centred perspective offers markedly different views not only of citizens but also of state institutions.
New strategies are needed in constructing and implementing development policy which focus on the relationship and interaction between state institutions and citizens. Key findings include the following:
- Citizen capabilities are a crucial yet often ignored intermediate outcome: Developing an active citizenry requires not only awareness campaigns, training or civil society membership, but also citizen action, through which citizens can learn skills and build alliances.
- Citizen action can contribute to development by improving service delivery: Citizens can be active participants in making and shaping the service delivery systems they depend upon. Collective engagement can transform a development resource into a right.
- Citizen action can contribute to new accountability frameworks: Demands for state accountability can be driven from below, through citizen movements. Citizen strategies include informal methods that can change cultures of accountability.
- Meaningful citizenship often begins with associational life: Local associations can play important roles in strengthening cultures of citizenship, which can contribute to more responsive states.
- Citizen mobilisation can contribute to making rights and democracy real for marginalised groups: Organised citizens strengthen democratic practice when they demand new rights, mobilise pressure for policy change and monitor government performance. Social movements and other forms of collective action provide opportunities for engagement and contribute to democratic politics and social change.
- Participation requires basic infrastructure: Citizen engagement requires a place to meet, inclusive new spaces, and essential services such as documentation. In the absence of support, poorer segments of society may find it difficult to participate.
- Violence and insecurity contribute to fragile citizenship: In violent settings, citizens’s strategies include withdrawal into partial citizenship or self-censorship, peaceful coexistence with violent actors, and establishing parallel governance or security structures.
In 75 per cent of the cases mapped in the study, participation contributed to positive gains. However, while citizen engagement can make a positive difference, it can also have detrimental consequences. Positive outcomes were mirrored by negative outcomes, which accounted for 25 per cent of the effects of citizen participation. Donors need to:
- Recognise the critical role that reforms and reformers within states play alongside the importance of citizens and citizen engagement. Effective reform comes from alliances between champions inside the state and social actors on the outside.
- Globalisation of authority poses new challenges for donors, activists and policymakers to think ‘vertically’ (at global, national and local levels). Success must be understood not only in terms of change at one level, but in terms of its consequences for power and inclusion in other policy levels as well.
- Research processes can contribute to long-term change. Far more work is needed to understand the factors that influence the outcomes of citizenship engagement in different contexts. It is important to understand not simply what difference citizen engagement makes, but also to understand the quality and direction of the differences that are made, and how they are attained.