Interest grows in reducing social exclusion through civic engagement, participation and volunteering for development
By Leila Patel 
The issue of social inclusion in civic-engagement efforts to promote national development is beginning to emerge more cogently on the agenda of international agencies and national governments.
There is a renewed interest in promoting civic engagement - with its focus on involving citizens to engage freely, individually and collectively to address matters of public concern - by United Nations agencies, national governments and non-governmental organisations to counteract social exclusion and promote inclusive societies. Social exclusion refers broadly to patterns of actions and inter-related social, economic and political processes that systematically marginalise and exclude a group or groups of individuals from full participation in societal processes and from benefiting equitably from progress in a society (Renner, Prewitt, Watanable and Gascho, undated).
This renewed interest in civic engagement and social inclusion is due in part to the changes brought about by the globalisation process and concomitant social and economic disparities within and between countries. There is also a growing realisation that the costs of social exclusion are high and cannot be ignored. Not only does it impact negatively on productivity and economic growth, it also threatens social cohesion of communities and ferments discontent among excluded individuals and groups. The link between social exclusion, disempowerment, a loss of confidence and trust in national governments and violence is increasingly being made as reflected by ongoing political violence, youth violence and ethnic and religious strife around the globe.
Civic engagement is one vehicle to promote active citizenship and social inclusion. In this respect governments consciously seek the views of citizens and social groups and have a genuine interest in achieving outcomes that incorporate their perspectives. Examples of civic engagement are: participation in elections, public policy/legislative processes, public consultations, advocacy, and participation in local neighbourhood-level decision-making structures among others.
Civic-engagement efforts also include volunteering and service programmes such as national youth service.
Volunteering involves the giving of one’s time freely for the benefit of others, and it constitutes another way of promoting social inclusion in national development efforts. Volunteering efforts worldwide are increasingly directed at excluded and marginalised groups, address national social-development goals, benefit both volunteers and servers, and promote social cohesion and solidarity. The programmes cover a range of areas such as community development, cultural diversity, employment, education, health, infrastructure development and environment among others (Patel, 2007).
Civic engagement in a broader sense could go some way toward deepening democracy through fostering active as opposed to passive citizenship, where citizens do not exercise their rights to political, economic and social participation. This positive view of civic engagement is based on the assumption that governments will create enabling environments to promote civic engagement of this kind and implies a more consensual or a collaborative approach to civic engagement. However, civic engagement could also be of an adversarial nature where individuals and collectives engage in activism or social movements to achieve desired or community ends that challenge the status quo (Cooper, Bryer and Meek, 2006).
Well-meaning engagement initiatives may intentionally or unintentionally result in the exclusion of individuals and groups based on social class, age, gender, educational attainment, language, religion, ethnicity, national origin or geography. It is vital to include voiceless, disenfranchised and disillusioned individuals and groups (such as refugees, economic migrants and indigenous peoples) in civic engagement and volunteering if engagement efforts are to be considered credible by excluded groups.
In order for civic engagement and volunteering to enjoy legitimacy and enhance citizen participation and trust, it should be perceived by them to be responsive to their concerns. For these reasons, civic engagement and volunteering policies and programmes of both governmental and non-governmental organisations need to have greater awareness of how such efforts might contribute to social inclusion as an outcome. Special attention needs to be paid to the perspectives and involvement of excluded groups in the design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of interventions.
Policies and programmes that are of a sectoral nature and focus on particular social categories, such as youth, can also unintentionally contribute to social exclusion. Many national youth service programmes in Africa were targeted at graduates and were criticised as benefiting elites (Obadare, 2007). Other criteria, such as age or religion, may also lead to exclusion of certain groups. More and more poor women are involved in volunteering in developing countries, which also reinforces traditional gender roles (Patel, 2007; Moleni and Gallagher, 2007).
These are not easy issues to address, but greater awareness of the exclusionary impact of programmes could go a long way in grappling with the complexity of social inclusion in engagement initiatives. The following questions need to be posed:
- Who are the participants?
- Who is not involved and why?
- What are the unintended consequences of using particular eligibility criteria in volunteering programmes?
This last question is important as it may limit access to participation in engagement efforts. How participants are involved is also an important consideration in assessing the efficacy of engagement programmes.
Other reasons why civic engagement has not been widely embraced and implemented by societies and their governments may be due to:
- a lack of knowledge, awareness, skills or the tools to promote engagement;
- the complexity of managing, resourcing and implementing engagement processes;
- obstacles in the operating environment and unfavourable political settings; and
- the people who lead, control and inhibit participation (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Social Policy and Development [UNDESA] and United Nations Volunteers [UNV], 2007).
It is imperative that these challenges are addressed by governments, international agencies promoting development and non-governmental organisations.
Strategies to overcome exclusion should be based on an understanding of who the excluders are, what power they have and what role they are playing in perpetuating the exclusion (Renner, Prewitt, Watanabe and Gascho, undated). Exclusion also has a historical aspect that needs to be understood. Its root causes may be related to colonialism, ethnic domination, social and cultural practices (e.g. patriarchy) and the protection of power domains, all of which also need to be better understood. Often multiple factors intersect to compound social exclusion, as in the case of women who are poor, who are of a particular ethnic group, who have limited education and who live in a particular geographic locality.
In conclusion, the issue of social inclusion in civic-engagement efforts to promote national development is beginning to emerge more cogently on the agenda of international agencies and national governments. Participation and engagement is considered to be a public good, and governments are encouraged to find ways to genuinely listen to the voices of excluded groups. In particular, the voices of those who advocate on behalf of excluded groups and people who speak for themselves should not be silenced by those who are more powerful than these advocates.
 Leila Patel is Head of the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg and a VOSESA board member
Cooper, T.L., Bryer, T.A. Meek, J.W. (2006). Citizen-Centred Collaborative Public Management. Public Administration Review. Special issue on Citizen-Centered Collaborative Public Management. 66:76-88.
Patel, L. (2007). A Cross-national study on civic service and volunteering in Southern Africa. The Social Worker Researcher Practitioner and Journal of Social Development in Africa. March 2007:7-23.
Moleni, K. and Gallagher (2007). Youth,service and development in Malawi. In Patel L. and Mupedziswa R. (eds), 2007, Research Partnerships Build the Service Field in Africa: Special issue on Civic Service in the Southern African Development Community, Johannesburg: Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa, The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher, Journal of Social Development in Africa. A joint special issue of The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher, University of Johannesburg and the Journal of Social Development in Africa, School of Social Work, University of Zimbabwe.
Obadare, E. (2007). The Effects of National Service in Africa, With a Focus on Nigeria. In Moore McBride, A. and Sherraden, M. (eds). (2007). Civic Service Worldwide Impacts and Inquiry. pp. 35-59. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.
Renner, S., Prewitt, G., Watanabe, M., and Gascho, L. (undated). Summary of the Virtual Table on Social Exclusion. http://www.undp.org/newsletters/poverty/newesdic.htm
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Social Policy and Development (UNDESA) and United Nations Volunteers Programme (UNV). Expert Group Workshop to Examine Methods for Promoting Participation, Engagement, Including Volunteerism, and Inclusion in National Development Initiatives. United Nations Headquarters, New York 27-28 November 2007. Unpublished report.
This article was informed by ideas exchanged at a workshop convened by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Social Policy and Development and United Nations Volunteers. The workshop was entitled: Expert Group Workshop to Examine Methods for Promoting Participation, Engagement, Including Volunteerism, and Inclusion in National Development Initiatives. United Nations Headquarters, New York 27-28 November 2007. The following participants contributed to the workshop session: G. Abouzaid (Egypt); C. Bonfluer (Brazil); A. Coulridge (USA); C. Demers (Canada); L. Kumar (India); A. Moore McBride (USA); L. Patel (South Africa); A. Uhereczky (Belgium); S.Mitchell (USA); R. Leigh (UNV Germany); D. Casey (UNV New York); K. Von Derschau (UNDP New York); B. Huber (UNDESA New York); O. Serezhin (UNDESA New York); R. Lane (UNDESA New York).