“Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.”(Abbie Hoffman)
By Solveig Leland
One of the sessions in iLEDA’s Citizen Leadership Training for African community leaders deals with the question of what a citizen is. Citizens can be seen as voters (recipients of government services), volunteers (the neighbourly citizen, favouring interaction with other citizens) and co-creators (citizens working in partnership with government to solve societal problems). The notion of the citizen as a co-creator is emphasised in the training, and the participants learn how they, as citizens, can work together to identify specific issues in the community that need to be addressed, develop strategies to solve problems and create things of public importance.
Instead of being a passive citizen complaining about the services government provide, a co-creator will engage both government and other citizens in working to find ways to improve the services. Active citizenry enables bottom-up decision making. Some problems are just easier to understand and to deal with when you’re close to them. When government is unaware of or unable to solve a problem in a particular community, ordinary citizens can choose to solve the problem themselves. When everyone partipates – with their own sets of skills, talents and insights – solutions can be developed that will be of lasting, public value. In short, citizen participation builds a better democracy.
In Norway, where I grew up, democracy has been around for quite some time, most prominently in the form of social democracy. We have a well-functioning welfare system, people have equal access to education, health- and social services, and it’s all very comfortable. Yet, we complain. We have become used to a system where we pay our taxes (though not without grumbling), and in return we expect the state to provide us with excellent services. Perhaps it is the strong individualist focus that is making us behave more like customers than engaged citizens. Perhaps democracy has become too matter-of-fact for us, and we have forgotten that we have to participate in order to solve societal problems. We have forgotten how to be active citizens.
Or have we?
Although individualism is on the increase, and the every-man-for-himself mentality seems to be growing, the spirit of solidarity and community is still present around the country. In fact, we have long traditions of community organising in Norway. Our concept and practice of ’dugnad’ is a manifestation of this. ‘Dugnad’ refers to work that is done on a voluntary basis, unpaid, and that has significance either for individuals or the greater community. In short – community service.
The concept of ‘dugnad’ is inherent to the Norwegian language and culture, and even little children will talk about going to ‘dugnad’, proudly carrying spades and buckets in their hands. ‘Dugnad’ is such a familiar and dear word for Norwegians that we voted it the national word in Norway in 2004.
In the village where I grew up, which has just about 800 people, there is little more than an old-people’s home, a primary school and an upper secondary school, a grocery shop and a church. The biggest building by far is the sports hall. It seems almost too large for a village of this size. You might be wondering what 800 people – of which 20% live in the old people’s home – might be doing with a giant sports hall, but you’d be surprised.
The people in the village decided they needed a space for the youth to play sports and for cultural events. The school hall was not big enough, as people from neighbouring villages would often show up for events as well. In cooperation with the municipality, the villagers took it upon themselves to construct this huge building. Funds were provided by the municipality, but this was not sufficient to cover all costs. Every weekend, for months, villagers would donate their time and resources and spend hour after hour at the construction site, contributing where it was needed. Some would build, some would provide food and others materials.
All around Norway, even in the cities, this phenomenon is present. When spring finally comes after a long winter, residents of apartment blocks will gather on a Saturday to clean up the garden and put a fresh coat of paint on the building. The local football club needs a new pitch, and players, parents and the rest of the community show up to help. The man next door is having a new garage built, but is short of resources, so neighbours come to help with the construction. Or, in the case of my village, we needed a place where the children and youth could play sports indoors, and all the villagers donated time and money and spent every weekend helping out at the construction site.
In 2007, Statistics Norway estimated that the value of this work amounts to NOK35 billion a year, or 3,8% of Norway’s GDP. But as much as this is about pooling resources and contributing time or money, it is also about creating a sense of community and building relationships with neighbours and community members. And – it’s about solving problems.
The tradition of dugnad in Norway shows that although Norwegians at times may take the role of a passive, complaining customer, most of us will not hesitate to participate in these activities that help foster change at the local – and sometimes national – level.
This tradition for community organising is not unique to Norway – barnraising in the US, talkoot in Finland and naffir in Sudan are all traditions that bring the community together to carry out tasks for the common good. It is the essence of these ‘traditions of change’ that iLEDA is trying to communicate to civil society in Africa through its leadership programme.
People have to come together – not just to protest – but to solve problems and build their own futures. Participation and active involvement from the citizenry is immensly important for the deepening of democracy, but even in democratic countries this cannot be taken for granted. In societies where traditions of communal work are present, people must be made aware of the democratic significance of this type of work, and the importance of keeping the practice alive. These traditions are essential to preserve democracy, and will – if cultivated – be a valuable resource for people in coming to terms with what it means to be an active citizen. Ultimately, democracy does not come from the state, but from the people.