Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

Does Group Contact Make Good Citizens?

Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

Does Group Contact Make Good Citizens?

Article excerpt

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

A sizable body of research points to a connection between the strength of civil society'-as measured, in part, by the presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)-and the level of democratic participation within a given community. Until somewhat recently, however, that research has dealt mainly with countries in the developed world. So Jennifer N. Brass, an assistant professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, decided to investigate an important open question: In less developed countries, does a high degree of engagement with NGOs increase people's likelihood of participating in political and civic activity'? (Assisting Brass with this project was Mark O'Dell, a student at Indiana University.)

To help answer that question, Brass commissioned a survey of about 500 people in three districts (Machakos, Mbeere, and Nairobi) of Kenya. Drawing on those data, she analyzed the relationship between certain "civil society'variables," as she calls them-access to NGOs, use of NGO services, and attitudes toward communitybased organizations and other NGOs-and respondents' propensity' to take part in political activities such as voting in national elections, engaging a public official in a "civic discussion," and attending a protest event.

The survey took place in late 2008-a time of political upheaval and violence in Kenya. (The country had gone through a disputed presidential election at the end of 2007.) For the survey, Brass targeted three districts that shared two attributes: They had experienced low levels of political violence in 2008, and they showed similar levels of support for the incumbent regime as other, more violent districts. "It was away to control for the bad timing of my research," Brass says. It was also a way "to control for the ethnic politics variable," she adds. …

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