How to Promote “Responsible” Democracy – Jean R. AbiNader

Role of Technology in Civic Education

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
November 16, 2016

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Looking at the results of the US elections focused me on the question of “American values.” Candidates for the highest to the local offices often refer to these values as if they are understood and shared by all Americans. And indeed they may be, and some would argue, must be. But that doesn’t give an insight into what they are specifically, how they are acquired, and how they evolve or not over time.

Morocco and many other countries in Africa and the MENA face a similar challenge: how does one define a country’s national values, promote their adoption, and sustain their relevance to the government and citizens alike? Some claim that shared values are at the heart of a country’s social contract that embodies the mutual obligations of the leadership and the people. Others, perhaps reflecting the difficult transitions to mature state systems that many emerging countries are experiencing, believe that these values are either imposed by elites, borrowed from regional and international organizations (think the AU and UN for example), or come about through consensus building among various groups, which often includes resolving conflicts and expanding definitions of nationality.

Morocco’s case is unique. As a hundreds of years old monarchy in a land with thousands of years of cultural history, its values have been shaped by geography, encounters with outside forces, religious influences emerging from Maliki Islam and Judaism, and its tribal and societal characteristics. And one could argue that its “national values” have two components, those shaped by its history as an Islamic entity under a monarch who is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and others that are derived from its participation in a global system of nations.

In either case, the US or Morocco, the issue of how values are formed and sustained continues to be relevant as technology and external influences are redefining what matters in building national cohesion in a country.

Two recent papers take on this issue from different directions. CSIS produced a paper on “Civic Education: Laying the Groundwork for Democracy,” while the National Democratic Institute (NDI) published a blog on “The distributed denial of democracy.” Both papers have useful insights that should be part of any conversation on the role and value of national values.

CSIS and NDI Link Civic Education and Democracy

I first became conscious of the importance of civic education in my eighth grade “civics” class, as it was then called, which looked at the United States and its values at home and abroad. It was this experience that gave me the goal of wanting to make the US better understood in the world. That hasn’t changed in the following 50+ years. As the CSIS analysis indicates “Civic education in schools and beyond teaches citizens how to vote, what their community needs are and what values it holds, and what the social compact between elected officials and their constituents means in practical terms.”

Through NGO programs developed by Civitas and Street Law, among many others, young people and communities are taken through the process of how democracy works, the roles of government and citizen, major influences shaping a country’s civic values, and many other topics. The CSIS article is clear that programs that work in one country will not necessarily work in another – an important caveat for those who think that democracy and governance programs can be implemented without thorough consideration of local sensibilities.

It also notes that what is critical in states going through transitions, whether through elections or post-conflict, is “rebuilding trust in the government and educating the voter base on what to expect…Civic education combats disillusionment among voters and opens a dialogue between government officials and citizens.” The importance of building trust with youth cannot be overstated, as they have “unprecedented access to information” but very low rates of participation in their countries’ political space, which is monopolized by traditional players.

The NDI builds on this point with the observation that “Social media and the Internet have had a drastic effect on the surprise results of yesterday’s election in the United States, driving the spread of information—and misinformation—at times bringing voters together and, perhaps more often, pushing them apart….It’s important to recognize that this is not a uniquely American trend.” A study  across 26 countries indicates that more than half of Internet users use social media as a primary source of news, and more than 25% call it their main news source. Percentages may be even higher in developing countries with high Internet penetration.

Morocco faces some interesting challenges in deciding how to balance Internet regulation and freedom of expression. Aside from restricting free VOIP and polling before elections (the value of which is highly problematic given the US experience) Morocco is a relatively free information environment. Unlike authoritarian and more fragile states in Africa and the MENA, Morocco increasingly sees social media as a two-way street for engaging citizens.

The long-term challenge is to protect the government-citizen interaction from malicious and misleading attacks from external and internal foes. As NDI points out “Creating and protecting safe platforms on the web for genuine political discourse will require collaboration among a host of actors. Governments, technology companies, media outlets, the academic community and organizations around the world must come together to develop policies and practices to aid civil society and citizens in addressing this problem, and build norms and standards for democratic governments to support an open Internet.”

Protecting this valuable suite of tools for promoting democratic values in the coming years will require significant efforts to shield political discourse from those who would damage Morocco’s national consensus-building on its national values.

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