A culture of democracy flourishes only when citizens are informed about democratic principles, and translate that knowledge into action by engaging with institutions and other public structures, community service, and leadership. As such, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) confirms the belief outlined in the 2016 GEM Report that youth civic education is crucial to a country’s democratic health, and ultimately, peace.
IFES is an international non-profit organization that advances good governance, and empowers underrepresented populations to participate in political processes in their communities. The organization views youth civic education as vital as “youth” is a transitional period during which individuals’ relationships with government change from passive to active. Reaching the age of enfranchisement is a milestone that enables young people to formally participate in their country’s political process.
IFES designs and implements youth programs that foster an understanding of citizens’ rights and responsibilities in a pluralistic society and creates a culture of engagement for those who have not yet reached the voting age in their communities. IFES also provides training, incentives, tools and opportunities for new voters to participate in elections and advocate for positive change within their communities. For example, with IFES support, in countries around the world young people have built networks and other public fora to discuss and debate issues of importance; trained for and served as election observers in their communities in order to uphold principles of free, fair, and transparent elections; and ensured a seat at the table during peaceful democratic transitions by drafting codes of conduct applied during high intensity pre- and post-election periods.
Civic Education in Georgia
An assessment of Georgia’s civic education landscape in 2010 found that schools and other youth-serving institutions throughout the country lacked curricula, qualified teachers and other resources dedicated to youth civic development. Yet in Georgia, where long-standing traditions of civic education and democratic society are nascent, these resources are vital in fomenting democratic values, attitudes, and habits in young people.
In response to these findings, in 2011 IFES developed a fully-accredited university-level civics course titled Democracy & Citizenship, and piloted the course in six higher-learning institutions. Today, the course is offered in 27 universities across the country in collaboration with the Georgian Civic Education Lecturers Association (CELA), and seeks to strengthen students’ understanding of governance; civic responsibility and civil society; enhance their critical thinking skills; and encourage active participation in public life.
There are more than 7,000 alumni throughout Georgia who have taken this course, many of whom have undertaken a variety of civic activities since their studies. For example, one group of students created an audio version of the Democracy & Citizenship course after learning that the text book was only available in print format. Another group of students created an Accessibility Corner in the library of Tbilisi State University – the largest university in Georgia – outfitted with a braille printer and other accessible technology.
Youth-led Micro Grants
The development of practical skills associated with active civic engagement is best achieved when students apply theoretical concepts explored inside the classroom to daily life outside of school. An outgrowth of the Democracy & Citizenship course is a micro grant program where youth-led organizations compete for funding in order to conduct projects of their own design. Putting theory into practice helps young people cement the link between conceptual notions of what citizenship is, and the look and feel of active citizenship in practice.
During the summer of 2016, IFES provided grants to 11 youth-led organizations working to address voter and social issues in their communities. These dedicated young people seek to make the lives of others better through their work. Meri Namgaladze, founder, Youth for Public Interests in Batumi, Georgia, commented that “my experience with [IFES’] civic education course and action project encouraged me to establish my NGO, Youth for Public Interests, together with my course mates, who are fellow D&C course alumni.” Additional thoughts by Ms. Namgaladze on her organization’s experience with micro grants can be heard in this interview.
Other youth-led organizations working with IFES include:
- Civic Activities Development Society, based in Gori, Georgia, is implementing a voter education project focused on ethnic minority rights in rural areas of Georgia. The project seeks to highlight the importance of ethnic minority participation in elections through a series of youth-led public information meetings, a village-level election simulation, and a local photo exhibition highlighting resident civic actions in the community. So far, youth staff have trained 107 people during five sessions held in the Shida Kartli region in Georgia.
- Changes for Equal Rights works to advance the rights of persons with disabilities in the Adjara region of Georgia by convening public meetings and other forums where local party and government representatives and young people with disabilities discuss how to address the barriers that people with disabilities face at the polls. These barriers include physical access in polling stations, as well as others related to societal attitudes and behaviors related to disability rights.
- Center for Democracy Intensification trains young people from marginalized groups on their rights related to political participation through a series of peer-led workshops. At a recent training session conducted in Tbilisi, a participant with an intellectual disability asked whether he would be forced to vote for a specific candidate during the upcoming parliamentary elections in Georgia. The youth staff used this question to facilitate a discussion among participants focused on the concept of a secret ballot, noting that “it is strictly your right [to vote] and you have the freedom to make your own choice at the polls.”
- The Peace Foundation works with ethnic Armenian young people in order to educate them on their rights and responsibilities as citizens of Georgia, and encourages them to actively participate at the polls on Election Day. The organization is conducting ongoing outreach by leading information sessions at schools and community centers.
These dedicated young people are reaching thousands of their peers and other Georgian citizens through their work, which has an important impact on their communities at large. However, the benefit goes beyond the parameters of these small grants. Investment in young people offers communities and societies a demographic dividend as research shows that early civic education and engagement establishes life-long patterns of participation in community and public affairs.