Sasha Fisher at Project Syndicate: “For over a decade now, we have witnessed more elections and, simultaneously, less democracy. According to Bloomberg, elections have been occurring more frequently around the world. Yet Freedom House finds that some 110 countries have experienced declines in political and civil rights over the past 13 years.
As democracy declines, so does our sense of community. In the United States, this is evidenced by a looming loneliness epidemicand the rapid disappearance of civic institutions such as churches, eight of which close every day. And though these trends are global in nature, the US exemplifies them in the extreme.
This is no coincidence. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 1830s, America’s founders envisioned a country governed not by shared values, but by self-interest. That vision has since defined America’s institutions, and fostered a hyper-individualistic society.
Growing distrust in governing institutions has fueled a rise in authoritarian populist movements around the world. Citizens are demanding individual economic security and retreating into an isolationist mentality
And yet we know that “user engagement” works, as shown by countless studies and human experiences. For example, an evaluation conducted in Uganda found that the more citizens participated in the design of health programs, the more the perception of the health-care system improved. And in Indonesia, direct citizen involvement in government decision-making has led to higher satisfaction with government services
While the Western world suffers from over-individualization, the most notable governance and economic innovations are taking place in the Global South. In Rwanda, for example, the government has introduced policies to encourage grassroots solutions that strengthen citizens’ sense of community and shared accountability. Through monthly community-service meetings, families and individuals work together to build homes for the needy, fix roads, and pool funds to invest in better farming practices and equipment.
This was one of the main effects of the Village Savings and Loan Associations that originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Within communities, members have access to loans to start small businesses and save for a rainy day. The model works because it leverages neighbor-to-neighbor accountability. Likewise, from Haiti to Liberia to Burundi and beyond, community-based health systems have proven effective precisely because health workers know their neighbors and their needs. Community health workers go from home to home, checking in on pregnant mothers and making sure they are cared for. Each of these solutions uses and strengthens communal accountability through shared engagement – not traditional vertical accountability lines.
If we believe in the democratic principle that governments must be accountable to citizens, we should build systems that hold us accountable to each other – and we must engage beyond elections and protests. We must usher in a new era of community-driven democracy – power must be decentralized and placed in the hands of families and communities.
When we achieve community-driven democracy, we will engage with one another and with our governments – not just on special occasions, but continuously, because our democracy and freedom depend on us….(More)” (See also Index on Trust in Institutions)