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Into a new age: The feeling of community

DEMOCRACY / The growing skepticism of the authorities is a global trend. Can increased degree of citizen participation and awareness of shared responsibility restore confidence?


According to Bloomberg, more and more choices are being made worldwide. Nevertheless, Freedom House reports that closer 110 countries have experienced a decline in political and civil rights over the past 13 years. When democracy is weakened, our sense of community is also weakened. In the United States, this has led to an overwhelming epidemic of loneliness and daily closures of local community institutions, such as neighborhood churches.

Although these trends are global, we see the most extreme examples of them in the United States. This is no accident. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 1830 century, America's ancestors imagined a land that was not governed by common values ​​but by self-interest. This vision has defined the institutions of the United States and led to a hyper-individualistic society.

Growing skepticism

A couple of years ago when I launched Spark MicroGrants In East Africa, I observed a group of American students meeting about 50 residents of a village in Rwanda. The residents were hoping to persuade the country's government to contribute to a project to extend the streamlines to their village. One of the students challenged one of the villagers about why the government, rather than the individuals present at the meeting, should pay for the project. In other words, the student expressed a typical American idea of ​​privatization and access based on individual purchasing power. This idea can weaken collective and civil participation, and it seems to undermine people's confidence in politicians. according to Pew Research Center the percentage of Americans who have confidence in the government has dropped as much as 55 percent between 1958 and 2017, and is now under 20 percent. Not surprisingly, participation and engagement have also fallen in the same time period, with halving participation in civilian organizations.

When democracy is weakened, our sense of community is also weakened.

The population's growing skepticism towards the authorities has been buzzing with the rise of authoritarian populist movements around the world. People demand personal financial security and friends turn to an isolating mindset. In the 2016 US presidential election, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appealed to an electorate that has had enough of the "system." In country after country, from Germany to Brazil, voters have flocked to parties on the far right wing, not because they are particularly fond of the candidates, but for fear of losing power and status in society.

Based on countless studies and experience, we also know that "user participation" works. In an evaluation conducted in Uganda, for example, it was found that the more residents were allowed to influence the design of the health program, the better their experience of the health and care services. And in Indonesia, direct citizen participation in political decision-making has led to an increase in how satisfied people are with government offerings and services.

By opening up more opportunities to get involved in the civil and political levels, we can strengthen the confidence in institutions and at the same time keep track of extremist trends in society. Today, however, civilian participation takes place, depending on which political campaigns and issues are in the wind. After mass shootings, demonstrations against gun laws increase, but the NFA (National Rifle Association) once again succeeds in exploiting the fear of state control, and the wind turns. In order to achieve a genuine form of participation, new institutions are needed that facilitate regular and effective civil participation and community-driven change.

Shared responsibility

While the West suffers from hyper-individualization, we find new thinking in governance and economics in the southern hemisphere. For example, the government of Rwanda has implemented a policy that encourages grassroots solutions that strengthen the people's sense of community and shared responsibility. Through monthly community meetings, families and individuals work together to build homes for the disadvantaged, repair roads and form splice beds to invest in better agricultural solutions and equipment. Imagine that over 300 million Americans came together every month for the same purpose.

From Rwanda. Photo: Jon Gos, Flickr

Power must be decentralized and placed in the hands of
families and communities.

This was one of the major effects of Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSL), which originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Inside the communities, members have access to start-up loans for small businesses and to save for times of trouble. The model works because it allows for the responsibility and intelligence of neighbors. In contrast, community-based health systems, from Haiti via Liberia to Burundi, have proven to be effective precisely because health care workers know their neighbors and their needs. Local health workers go door-to-door, look after pregnant women and make sure everything is in order. All of these solutions benefit and strengthen the community's sense of responsibility through active participation – without traditional vertical responsibilities.

If we believe in the democratic principle that governments must stand up to the people, we should build systems that hold us accountable to each other – and we must participate in society beyond using the ballot paper and going on demonstrations. We must open up a new age, with a community-driven democracy – power must be decentralized and placed in the hands of families and communities.

Once we have achieved a community-driven democracy, we will engage with each other and our authorities – not only on special occasions, but continuously, since our democracy and our freedom depends on US.
Fisher helped launch Spark Microgrants, which provides micro loans and start-up financing

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