• Home
  • blog


By Kenias Shonhai

Civic education (also known as citizen education or democracy education) can be broadly defined as the provision of information and learning experiences to equip and empower citizens to participate in democratic processes. Civic education if properly executed can achieve a number of goals both intended and unintended. Interestingly, Ivanov aptly captures one of the central goals of civic education as “to educate the students to love their historical homeland, so – to educate patriotic feelings in general – the formation of value systems that provide the formation of citizenship and patriotism” (Ivanov 1999).

In Zimbabwe, civic education is more often than not viewed with anti ‘patriotic lenses. It is viewed as a regime change agenda by the government. The task of fostering a democratic culture among citizens has fallen primarily to NGOs rather than to the government, and the vast majority of these types of programs are voluntary.  Notwithstanding that the duty of civic education has been squarely placed on the government shoulders, they negate it for reasons best known to them. Sometimes the government has the audacity to even stop civil society organizations who are providing platforms for civic education. In the recent past, the government through its agents has sought to have all the NGOs monitored by different government offices and threats of stopping operations have become the order of the day.

What do civic education programs cover?

Civic education covers a wide variety of concerns, from voter education, to human rights knowledge, to citizen leadership training. In general, civic education seeks to foster citizen participation in democratic processes. Their formats also cover a broad range, from informal sessions held just once to elaborate and structured programs lasting many months.  The assumption driving many of these efforts is that the transfer of democratic knowledge, values, and skills will translate into responsible and effective participation once the program has ended. In simple terms, civic education covers the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

Communities are very different in almost everything, their needs, goals, aspirations, beliefs, orientation. It is therefore necessary that one needs to understand all these and other variables in order to have effective civic education. However, there are certain issues that transcend communities and they become national in nature hence civic education programs are designed to address fundamental weaknesses in a nation’s democratic system.  These can include differential in access to justice, marginalization of certain groups such as women or ethnic minorities, low levels of citizen participation in the policy making process, and lack of knowledge and/or voter apathy in elections.

Objectives and Goals of civic education

Civic education seeks to accomplish a number of general goals, such as impart knowledge about democratic practices and institutions, instill core democratic beliefs and values, and encourage more active and informed political participation.  While many programs include some or all of these elements, most tend to focus on one or two goals.  The more specific objectives and goals of a civic education program should be driven by the key problem identified in a given community or country. For example, if a key problem is defined as lack of knowledge about the mechanics of voting in the lead up to elections, then a central objective might be to transmit information on electoral procedures and practices to the largest number of possible voters. Similarly, if a mission has identified lack of responsiveness in local government as a key democracy problem, then one goal of civic education might be to bring local elected officials and their constituents together in programs that are designed to find solutions to community problems.

Lessons learned in civic education

Course design and teaching methods are critical to the success of civic education programs.  At one level, this seems obvious, but it has profound programming implications. If civic education programs are well designed and well taught and if they meet frequently, use participatory methods, stress learning by doing, and focus on issues that have direct relevance to participants’ daily lives, they can have a significant, positive impact on democratic participation and attitudes. If courses do not possess these qualities—if they rely primarily on passive teaching methods, meet only a few times, or make no attempt to link more abstract lessons about democracy to people’s daily experience, they have little to no effect. The implication is that, if civic education is not done well, it is probably not worth doing at all. Within this broad lesson about the importance of paying attention to, and investing sufficient resources in, course design and teaching method, a number of more specific recommendations emerge:

  • Be aware of, and try to craft effective responses to, barriers to frequent participation: frequent exposure to civic education is one of the key elements in ensuring its effectiveness.
  • Use as many participatory methods as possible: participatory teaching methods are critical to the success of civic education programs. Role-plays, dramatizations, small group exercises, and group discussions are far more effective tools for imparting knowledge about democratic practices and values than more passive methods such as lectures or the distribution of materials.
  • Build opportunities for participation directly into the program: Closely related to participatory teaching methods, is the finding that civic education has the greatest impact on participants when programs brought individuals directly into contact with local authorities or engaged in local problem-solving activities.
  • Focus on themes that are immediately relevant to people’s daily lives: To be most effective, civic education programs should be designed around themes that are immediately relevant to people’s daily lives, people tend to act on specific problems or events that are immediately important to them.
  • Invest in the training of trainers: As a corollary to the recommendations about the importance of course design and teaching method, the training of trainers to provide high quality instruction is a good investment. It is crucial that trainers feel comfortable with a broad range of teaching methods, and have the flexibility to adapt both method and course content to the immediate daily concerns of program participants. One possible approach is “team teaching”, where a staff person with extensive knowledge of teaching methods and democratic content is paired with a respected local community member who can link broader democracy issues to local concerns. This is a culturally correct and acceptable manner of doing civic education.
  • Pay attention to gender issues: In general, not only do men start out at higher levels in terms of political participation and knowledge, they also tend to gain more overall from civic education. Much of this may be due to deeply held cultural values and practices, and it is unreasonable to expect civic education to make much headway in this regard. However, gender concerns should be a high priority in the minds of trainers.
  • Avoid inflating expectations: Few governments can measure up to the optimistic and rosy portraits of democracy that are presented in some of their campaigns and campaign materials. Program implementers should be aware that there is a risk of setting the standards too high and of creating unrealistic expectations about what democracy can and should deliver, and how quickly. To this end, programs may want to focus on specific short-term goals, in addition to broad issues of reforming political institutions.
  • Inclusivity: it is natural that birds of the same feather fly together. There should be a deliberate approach in selecting participants to include people of different political, social, economic and religious orientation. This will break a barrier of knowledge get keepers.

Civic education is not something that can be achieved overnight. It requires dedicated resources, a receptive and responsive citizenry for it to be a success. Deliberate measures must be taken in reaching out to the communities who are in need, for example, the marginalized communities.

We therefore call upon the government and all its agencies, independent commissions and development partners to dedicate resources towards the democratization of the communities particularly with regard to participation in electoral processes.

Kenias Shonhai is a Projects Lawyer at the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association. Comments to this article can be send to For more information about our work, please visit our website on