Author: Jennifer Rietbergen-McCracken
Civic education (also known as citizen education or democracy
education) can be broadly defined as the provision of information and
learning experiences to equip and empower citizens to participate in
democratic processes. The education can take very different forms,
including classroom-based learning, informal training, experiential
learning, and mass media campaigns. Civic education can be targeted at
children or adults, in developed or developing countries, and at the
local, national or international level. As such, civic education is an
approach that employs a range of different methods, and is often used
in combination with other participatory governance tools.
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What is it?
The overall goal of civic education is to promote civic engagement
and support democratic and participatory governance. The idea behind
civic education is to promote the demand for good governance (i.e. an
informed and engaged public), as a necessary complement to efforts to
improve the practice of good governance. Civic education has been used
to address a wide variety of political and governance issues (e.g.
corruption, civic apathy or post-conflict reconciliation) as well as
important social issues (e.g. domestic violence, drug abuse, and
Civic education is concerned with three different
elements: civic knowledge, civic skills and civic disposition. Civic
knowledge refers to citizens’ understanding of the workings of the
political system and of their own political and civic rights and
responsibilities (e.g. the rights to freedom of expression and to vote
and run for public office, and the responsibilities to respect the rule
of law and the rights and interests of others). Civic skills refer to
citizens’ ability to analyze, evaluate, take and defend positions on
public issues, and to use their knowledge to participate in civic and
political processes (e.g. to monitor government performance, or
mobilize other citizens around particular issues). Civic dispositions
are defined as the citizen traits necessary for a democracy (e.g.
tolerance, public spiritedness, civility, critical mindedness and
willingness to listen, negotiate, and compromise).
By far the
most widespread application of civic education is in formal school
education. Civic education is being taught as part of the regular
curriculum in primary and secondary schools around the world, and there
are extensive pedagogic resources available from the many civil society
organizations involved in promoting this aspect of the approach. Some
useful resources in this regard are the curricular materials of
organizations such as Center for Civic Education the Civic Education Partnership Initiative and CIVNET..
write-up will focus on other types of civic education, namely in
informal education and information-sharing activities. Civil society
has a large role to play in implementing these kinds of applications.
Some of the common uses of civic education outside of schools include
voter education, awareness-raising programs for disadvantaged groups
(e.g. immigrant communities or the poor) on their social and political
rights, and leadership training for local civil society activists.
Civic education has also been used in the public sector, for example to
improve the democratic functioning of local government or political
Civic education is frequently used in conjunction with
other capacity-building and dialogue approaches, to strengthen the
ability of citizens and civil society groups to organize themselves,
interact with others, and make their voices heard by those in power.
Thus for example, a civic education initiative may reveal the need for
targeted training of community leaders on communications, or may be
followed up by the facilitation of citizen forums and advocacy
campaigns. A good example of a civic education initiative that was
embedded in a broader democratic governance programme is the work of UNDP in East Timor.
delivering civic education services (outside of schools) include civil
society groups (e.g. community organizations, NGOs, education
institutions, faith-based groups), international development
organizations, media organizations, the private sector, and government
Some of the tools most commonly used in civic
education activities include seminars, workshops, focus group
discussions, drama, simulations, role plays, radio and television
programmes, information technologies (e.g. blogs, internet forums) and
other informal teaching and information-sharing methods. The emphasis
is on participatory and cooperative methods of learning.
tool used in civic education programmes (mostly school or
university-based ones) is ‘service learning’ where participants spend
some time in their communities, involved in political action such as
for e.g. attending or organizing political meetings or protests, or
gathering signatures for petitions. More information on service
learning is available at www.servicelearning.org and http://www.ericdigests.org/1996-3/service.htm.
and peer-to-peer programmes are frequently used, to spread the impact
of civic education efforts and allow for more continuous learning
opportunities. The Training-of-trainer manual developed by CIVCOM Partners for training facilitators of community-based problem-solving workshops and UNDP’s guide on peer-to-peer learning drawn from it’s experiences across the world are two useful resources.
How is it done?
Given the wide variety of applications of the civic education
approach, it is not possible to provide detailed guidelines here that
would be relevant to all the different applications. Instead, this
section will present a generic process of how to plan, implement and
monitor a civic education programme or activity. This will be followed
by an illustrative example of a workshop-based civic education activity
to show the steps involved in the actual learning process.
though, a few words about the role of the media in civic education as
this is an area with considerable potential for advancing citizen
engagement and many civic education activities can make use of media
resources as research and awareness-raising tools. UNESCO
has developed a manual designed for use by facilitators of
training/discussion workshops on the role of the media in civic
In particular, the media can help facilitate civic education by:
- Raising public consciousness about a social or political issue;
- Reducing issues to choices to show the clear alternatives;
- Highlighting the core values (and any conflicting values) behind each choice;
- Spelling out the costs and consequences of each choice;
- Bridging the expert-public gap by translating technical jargon into clear language and highlighting public opinion; and
- Facilitating debate among different groups of citizens.
A good example of how media can be used in civic education is seen in the case of Africa Good Governance Programme on the Radio Waves,
a programme run by the World Bank Institute during 2005-2007. This
distance learning programme was transmitted via digital satellite radio
technology to municipalities in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, with
the aim of helping them and their citizens to create more transparent
and efficient municipal governments. The programme introduced listeners
to the concepts, definitions, and tools of civic participation and
governance, and presented a step-by-step methodology for participatory
General steps for implementing civic education
with a needs assessment, to understand the civic education needs of the
target group. This needs assessment can take the form of a situation
analysis, and could entail, for example:
the target audience and design the civic education activity according
to the gaps identified and the capacities assessed during the
situational analysis. This stage involves identifying possible
engagement options (e.g. basing the education around a specific issue,
social group, or event) and the level and formality of the civic
education activity. Develop civic education modules and materials to fit the design (or use existing ones if available). Train civic educators and conduct one or two pilot activities to test the training process and materials. Make any revisions necessary and apply the full-scale civic education activity. Measure the impact of the civic education activity and ask participants for feedback to improve future experiences.
- Identifying any existing providers of civic education;
- Identifying existing government policies on civic education;
- Clarifying the constitutional and/or legal framework within which civic education programming might take place;
existing civic education provision by identifying thematic areas
addressed, target groups, sectoral priorities, geographical scope,
methodologies used, materials available, partnerships and linkages, and
the level of existing civic education capacity.
An example of a specific civic education initiative
‘We the People: Project Citizen’
is one of the most widely applied civic education programmes in the
world. It is a curricular programme for students, youth organizations
and adult groups that aims to promote citizen engagement in local and
state government. Developed in the United States of America in the
mid-1990s, Project Citizen has since been translated into more than
forty languages. The typical process followed by the participants is as
- Identification of a public policy problem in their community;
into the problem, by conducting interviews and surveys, gathering
secondary data, and referring to print and internet sources of
- Evaluation of alternative policy solutions to address the problem;
- Prioritization of one policy solution and further development of this solution;
- Creation of a political action plan to enlist government support for the proposed policy;
- Development of a portfolio of the research work and the proposed policy;
- Presentation of the portfolio in a public hearing before a panel of civic-minded community members.
The two main areas where civic education programmes have shown consistently positive impacts are:
participation in political processes: In general, those citizens who
have taken part in civic education programmes are more likely to become
involved in activities such as voting, taking part in community
problem-solving initiatives, attending local government meetings,
participating in protests, contributing to election campaigns, and
contacting elected officials.
- Greater political knowledge:
Again, participants of civic education programmes have been shown to
have better knowledge about the basic features of the political system
of their country, including the structure and function of democratic
institutions, their basic political and civil rights, and the timing of
More generally, civic education can contribute important benefits in promoting good governance and civic engagement.
Many evaluation studies such as for e.g. the one carried out by USAID
in 2002 have shown that the benefits of civic education programmes for
adults are not always shared equally between men and women. Indeed,
civic education can actually widen the gender gap in political
participation as men tend to gain more from these programmes,
strengthening their democratic values and behaviours at a greater rate
than their female counterparts. This skewed impact is likely a
reflection of the cultural and economic barriers to women’s
participation in political processes, especially in the developing
world. Evaluations of school-based civic education programmes on the
other hand show either a weaker or no correlation between gender and
the political participation benefits of these programmes.
Challenges and Lessons
Some of the main challenges faced by those applying civic education as articulated in the UNDP
literature revolve around the risk of ‘elite capture’ which means the
domination of the deliberative process by more powerful, articulate
groups. Since one of the key objectives of many civic education
programmes is to empower weaker groups to participate in democratic
processes, these challenges need to be tackled head-on. Civic education
activities targeting the poor and marginalized will therefore need to
overcome the realities facing these less powerful groups, including:
- Low levels of literacy;
cynicism and distrust in the goals and intent of civic education
programmes, due to years of oppression, exploitation and
- Reluctance to discuss or speak out on issues of concern, as this may be perceived as too risky;
pressing priorities – for some, civic education is an unaffordable and
irrelevant luxury in the midst of a daily struggle for survival.
Setting aside sufficient time to participate in civic education
activities may be a challenge, particularly for women.
addition, civic education has sometimes been seen to deepen the
disparities between different groups in society in terms of not only
widening the gender gap, but also the gap between those with differing
levels of cognitive skills and political awareness prior to their
participation in the civic education activity. Commonly, those
participants better ‘primed’ to receive the messages that civic
education delivers will benefit more from the education, and use the
knowledge and skills they have learned to greater effect than those who
are less well prepared (generally the more marginal, less powerful
groups in society). In this respect, civic education can risk
contributing to the maintenance, or even exacerbation, of the
inequalities in political awareness and participation (see for e.g. Finkel, 2000a).
while civic education has proved effective in strengthening political
knowledge and participation, it has been less successful in instilling
democratic values such as political tolerance or trust in political
institutions (USAID, 2002). In fact, in some cases, participants have shown a tendency to become more distrustful and skeptical of their governments (Finkel, 2000b).
This is not necessarily a failing of civic education, as it may reflect
a strengthening of critical thinking among participants and may lead to
more pressure for reform of weak governance. In addition, values such
as tolerance are often deeply held and formed over a lifetime. Civic
education programmes are unlikely to change participants’ value systems
in a significant way although some programmes have had a positive
impact on social values such as gender equality and respect.
From USAID’s evaluation studies, it can be discerned that effective civic education activities are characterized by the following critical features:
- Frequent sessions:
participants will gain little benefit from attending one or two
sessions; once a threshold of three sessions has been reached, the
impacts will be significantly greater.
- Participatory methods:
the use of interactive methods such as role-plays, problem- solving
activities, and mock political or judicial activities is key to
- Special efforts to reach the less powerful:
given the above-mentioned challenges associated with involving and
benefiting less powerful groups, civic education activities need to be
carefully designed to match the needs and conditions facing such groups.
- Linking with opportunities for political participation:
civic education can either tap into existing channels for participation
(e.g. by partnering with local political advocacy NGOs) or create their
own channels (e.g. by setting up meetings between programme
participants and elected officials). Some of the most successful civic
education programmes for adults have been built around community
- Linking to participants’ concerns:
civic education based solely on abstract notions, unrelated to the
daily lives of participants, will have little impact; successful
programmes weave lessons about democratic values and principles into
the real-life issues and experiences of participants.
- Focus on hot topics:
participants will engage more fully if the topics discussed are ones
they feel strongly about, so it is useful to define and discuss a
number of controversial issues where there is likely to be a range of
opinions among participants.
- Model democracy: civic
education programmes need to be run in a democratic manner, to
demonstrate the values being taught, such as participation, tolerance
- Address the supply side too: as civic
education is generally concerned with increasing the demand for good
governance, consideration also needs to be given to strengthening the
skills, knowledge and awareness of the supply side actors to respond to
this demand. Thus, civic education is most effective if accompanied by
capacity building efforts directed at civil servants, the police,
Centre for Civic Education, USA
The site is an excellent resource on ‘Project Citizen’, a school based
civic education programme in the United States of America.
Finkel, S.E. (2000a). Civic Education and the Mobilization of Political
Participation in Developing Democracies. Paper prepared for the
conference ‘Political Participation: Building a Research Agenda’,
Princeton University, October 12-14, 2000.
This paper reviews the impacts of civic education programmes in the
Dominican Republic and South Africa and offers some practical lessons
for the design of similar programmes elsewhere.
Finkel, S.E. (2000b). Can Tolerance be Taught? Adult Civic Education
and the Development of Democratic Values. Paper prepared for the
conference ‘Rethinking Democracy in the New Millennium’, University of
Houston, February 16-19, 2000.
This paper examines the extent to which civic education programmes can
instil democratic values such as tolerance, drawing on civic education
experiences in the Dominican Republic and South Africa.
Garman, B. (1995). Civic Education through Service Learning.
web article outlines the rationale and benefits of service learning and
provides some brief guidance on designing service learning experiences.
Learn and Serve. National Service-learning Clearinghouse
This is a good resource for anyone interested in organizing service
learning opportunities, and provides starter kits for both school and
Civic Education: Practical Guidance Note. Bureau for Development
Policy, Democratic Governance Group, United Nations Development
This is an excellent introductory how-to guide on civic education with case studies of UNDP initiatives around the world.
UNESCO (2009). Civic Education for Media Professionals: A Training
Manual. UNESCO Series on Journalism Education. UNESCO, Paris.
This manual is designed for use by facilitators of training /discussion
workshops on the role of the media in civic education. It includes a
set of suggested exercises to use during the workshop.
USAID (2002). Approaches to Civic Education: Lessons Learned. Office of
Democracy and Governance, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and
Humanitarian Assistance, U.S. Agency for International Development,
report describes USAID’s approach to civic education, both in schools
and communities, assesses the impacts of the initiatives undertaken,
and identifies a set of lessons learned.
Brilliant, F. (1999). Civic Education Assessment Stage II. Civic
Education Programming Since 1990: A Case Study Based Analysis.
Management Systems International. Report submitted to USAID,
Washington, DC, US.
This paper reviews USAID-supported civic education
programmes undertaken in the 1990s and includes ten case studies that
reflect the diverse approaches adopted by these programmes throughout
Civic Education Resource Inventory
A part of CIVNET, the Civic Education Resource
Inventory provides information on civic education resources from around
the world. The inventory contains citations of over 588 resources
related to school-based civic education.
CIVNET is a worldwide online community of those
involved or interested in civic education. CIVNET is administered by
CIVITAS International, an international civic education NGO. The site
includes a library of resources on civic education, though mostly
related to the US education system.
CIVCOM Partners (2005). Train the Trainer Manual: Participation:
Civic education and Community Mobilization. Centre for Human Rights and
Rehabilitation, Public Affairs Committee, National Constitutional
Assembly, CIVNET, ASSERCO, CBRC, NIZA.
This manual provides simple how-to guidance for
facilitators of community-based problem-solving workshops, as a tool
for civic education. The manual takes the reader through each step of
the process, with a sample programme and notes on group discussion
The Communication Initiative network is an online
space for sharing the experiences of, and building bridges between, the
people and organisations engaged in or supporting communication as a
fundamental strategy for economic and social development and change.
The link describes the Africa Good Governance Programme on Radio Waves,
which is cited as a valuable example of the use of media and
communication in civic education programmes
Dippell, M. (2004). Civic Education Strategies for Political
Parties and Civic Groups. Paper presented at the Organization of
American States Special Session of the Permanent Council on ‘Promotion
of Democratic Culture through Education’ Washington, D.C., April 12,
This paper outlines the National Democratic
Institute’s approach to civic education in Latin America and the
Caribbean, and in particular its political leadership programme and its
civic forum programme.
Hirschfeld, A. (2008). Creating Citizens for Democracy: Civic
Education and the Use of Radio in Kenya. MSc Thesis, International
Development Department, University of Birmingham, UK.
This paper looks at two civic education programmes:
the Africa Good Governance on the Radio Waves Programme which focuses
on local authorities across Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania, and Uganda
and the National Civic Education Programme which is a Kenya-wide
programme focused on increasing the population’s political awareness.
Human Rights Education Associates.
This website has an extensive library on civic
education centred on human rights, including curriculum development
materials, textbooks and other documents.
International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
This website contains a wide selection of resources
on civic education for electoral assistance and democracy. It also has
several photo galleries with a good collection of photographs of civic
education in action.
National Democratic Institute (NDI)
NDI has undertaken civic education programmes in
many countries worldwide and this website includes details of many of
World Movement for Democracy
This website includes a section on civic education,
which provides links to organizations involved in civic education in
different regions of the world.
Peace-building and citizenship education in Angola
In 2003, Development Workshop, an international NGO, launched a
civic education programme in Angola with its local civil society
partners, to encourage dialogue and tolerance among war-affected
communities. The programme followed on from extensive peace-building
efforts by the same civil society groups and focused on preparing the
population for the 2008 elections. The programme consisted of the
following elements: electoral training, education, adult literacy,
conflict resolution and organized participative planning at the local
community level. Community theatre, cartoons and a community newspaper
were also used to bring across the messages, such as the right to vote
and the need to live and work together peacefully. The programme was
built around teams of provincial activists, trained in civic education,
conflict management, community mobilization and principles of
democracy. The teams, which comprised representatives of the Ministry
of Education, local NGOs and other civil society partners, took special
efforts to ease the reintegration of ex-combatants into communities.
Conflicts were common and often centred on grievances over resources.
For example, one poor community which was experiencing high levels of
violence and criminality included many displaced people, mostly
unemployed and living in tents without access to water or sanitation. A
seminar was organized for the community members, to discuss how to move
from violence and revenge to tolerance and reconciliation. As part of
the solution, DW’s water and sanitation programme became involved,
providing basic services which helped to ease the tension over
For more information on this case, see:
Promoting political participation among Afro-Ecuadorians
In 2005, IFES, an international democracy-building organization,
launched a project to strengthen Afro-descendant community groups and
enable Afro-Ecuadorians to participate in the political life of the
country. IFES partnered with local Afro-Ecuadorian CSOs and conducted
the following set of activities:
- Leadership training for Afro-Ecuadorians: the
project established a political leadership school, which provided
training in project management, ethno-education and political
- Dialogue with political leaders:
the project encouraged Ecuador’s political parties to run
Afro-descendant candidates and to participate in debates that examine
- Increased visibility for Afro-Ecuadorians:
the project showcased Afro-Ecuadorian history, culture and national
contributions on a weekly radio program, in publications and in special
The project also trained some 60 Afro-descendants to monitor
election procedures in five provinces during the 2006 presidential and
legislative polls. These trainees took part in the first such election
monitoring in their communities, to measure voter turnout among
Afro-Ecuadorians and determine the specific problems they face at the
polls. The observers studied how Afro-Ecuadorian voters acted in
polling centres and how they were treated overall.
For more information on this case, see www.ifes.org/ecuador.html#project_52
A political leadership training programme in Latin America
The National Democratic Institute, a US-based NGO, has been
operating a civic education programme in Latin America since 1995 to
help make political parties more responsive and representative. NDI
started by looking at the common characteristics of successful parties
around the world and identified three elements to their success:
(i) internal democracy in selecting candidates, leaders and a policy platform;
(ii) ongoing outreach and recruitment of all sectors of society including traditionally
underrepresented populations like women, youth and minority groups; and
(iii) transparency and openness in party activities and financing.
In 1999, NDI launched its Political Leadership Programme, which has
brought together young leaders from across the region, from 56 major
political parties and movements across the ideological spectrum. These
leaders are immersed in an intensive academy that focuses on
skills-building activities aimed at addressing the three elements of
success mentioned above. In addition, each participant has to design
and implement a party-strengthening project with the support of a
high-level party mentor. These projects have included: increasing
indigenous participation in Guatemala; reforming party statutes and
internal democracy in Colombia and Venezuela; promoting youth and women
participation in Mexico and building communication and outreach
capacity of local party branches in Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay.
After the participants return to their countries, NDI provides advice
and support by periodically bringing in political practitioners who can
offer advice from their experiences elsewhere in the region.
For more information on this case, see Dippell (2004) and www.ndi.org/content/leadership_program