Civic engagement goes beyond capital cities

Published: 9 November 2021

Civic engagement, online or offline, helps shape our politics, economies, and social lives. Specifically, civic space refers to legal or constitutional conditions experienced by citizens as a lived environment that enables them—individually or collectively, physically, or digitally—to organise, speak out for their rights and actively participate in the governance of their area or country. Without the engagement of people from different social groups and demographics in public matters, one cannot build a democracy, nor counter polarisation. Still, civic engagement has been reserved predominantly for European capital regions where the effects of certain policies on people’s lives are immediately perceived.

In several countries in Europe, there is a tangible difference between the urban and rural population in terms of political preferences, lifestyle, age, and civic participation. Part of the reason for this difference is a strong emigration from the rural areas by the young and educated population, leaving an older age group behind. Therefore, several of Civitates’ grantee partners have made it a priority to expand civic engagement beyond the capital cities.

History has played quite a big role in the lack of rural people’s engagement in civic society as well. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transition process in many European countries did not provide knowledge about what democracy is. Moreover, communist planning of the economy was based on heavy industry and when after privatisation factories in the smaller cities and more remote areas had to close, many people were left without employment opportunities. As a result, they see democracy as a form of governance that makes their lives more difficult. This has led to people living in rural areas feel more disconnected from democratic processes in their countries, have lost faith in politics and thus, are less interested in civic participation.

Our grantee partners working towards strong and resilient civil society recognise this trend as a potential backslide for democracy and have been actively trying to counter it through collaborating, sharing resources and engaging with CSOs partners from all over their respective countries.

Bridging the divide

People with undemocratic ideas have exploited this trend, which is particularly visible in times of local elections when politicians use the gap for their right-wing programmes. The older, rural population is not used to standing up for their rights and tends to buy in right-wing propaganda and radical ideas without criticism.

In Hungary, for instance, members of the Civilisation coalition, led by Ökotárs, reached out to organisations in remote areas on a very small scale, supporting them with money, tools and methods for community organising. To build trust among local people, these organisations should achieve concrete results in their neighbourhoods such as pressing the local government to repair the public lightning in the streets, to be able to build engagement for the long run. In Romania, a grassroots approach consisting of direct work with local people, helping them to advocate for their daily issues, proved to be effective.

Oana Preda, Director of the Romanian organisation CeRe which leads the country’s coalition:

“Such work is more challenging in rural areas, but it’s worth the efforts.”

It is very encouraging to learn that the actions of coalitions in Europe to mobilise collective engagement beyond the capital does pay off. Step by step they can convince people of the importance of civil society organisations and how the work they do transmits to all aspects of life.

In Italy, one of the European countries hit hardest by Covid-19, the pandemic played a surprisingly positive role in changing the perception of NGOs and as such civic action. Andrea Menapace, Executive Director at the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights:

“Before the outbreak of the virus, smear campaigns orchestrated by right-wing media against civil society organisations working on for instance immigration, were numerous. But because of Covid-19, the priorities for the political agenda shifted. Civil society organisations – amongst them many migrant workers – rapidly responded to the needs of people, providing them with relief. Something the government couldn’t do given the scale of the speed of the outbreak. As a result, the same NGOs that had been attacked in smear campaigns, were now by most of the people, seen as part of the solution.”

Another example comes from Bulgaria – Nadejda Dermendjieva, Executive Director of the Bulgarian Fund for Women that leads the ‘Ravni BG’ coalition in the country, managed to strengthen the community of progressive NGOs when quite a few rural organisations joined their group. They were nominated by local CSOs that had already participated in the coalition. The rural organisations trusted these CSOs and out of interest approached the coalition. The coalition then supplied them with micro-grants, a safe space to strategise, share their work with a network of supporters and even with a structure to scale up their initiatives. Constant communication and sharing knowledge are key for building trust.

Furthermore, in 2020 Bulgarian government wanted to introduce legislation forbidding CSOs to receive foreign subsidy. Nation-wide this attempt was not seen as a threat to civil society and not much attention was paid to this legislative process. As a result, CSOs beyond the capital didn’t know about the plans, nor the need to respond. The situation was alarming, because with the passing of that law, many local CSO’s would not have survived. In the end, the coalition led by the Citizen Participation Forum managed to mobilise CSOs and gathered more than 300 civil society organisations throughout the country to sign a joint statement against the legislation which was subsequently blocked.

The latter example illustrates that decisions influencing any group of people should not be an isolated ‘capital matter’ nor taken solely by the political elites, but that nationwide engagement is needed.

It’s not always easy but it’s worth it

While there are positive results, the various coalitions also struggled. Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs:

“In Hungary, some of the more established ‘traditional’ local CSOs were reluctant to engage with the larger organisations in our coalition because they feared that their activities would be seen as a political act. We try to explain to them that engaging in public matters is important and can make a positive impact, but that is difficult in an environment where ‘political’ has almost become a swearword.”

Nadejda Dermendjieva: Sensitising people for new ideas is the most difficult part. While writing a press release is something everybody can learn, changing people’s minds, for instance, about the rights of women, gender equality or LGBTQI+ is more challenging.”

Oana Preda explains how in Romania the pandemic harmed civic participation – starting with the need for physical distancing, diminishing the quality of life, causing depression but also occupying a lot of space on the public agenda.

Those challenges have further proved that collective engagement needs constant attention and going beyond the capitals is furthermore necessary because, in many aspects, people’s lives are affected by the local government more than by the national government. Engagement with local authorities is important for a wide variety of issues. Developing active citizenship, participation, and mobilisation beyond the centers of the countries is thus essential to the work of our partners and vital for a strong democracy.