Image source: The Honors College. University of Houston. - Photo: 2023

OPINION: Civic Engagement Key to Tackle Our Biggest Challenges

By Simone Galimberti

The writer co-founded ENGAGE and Good Leadership, Good for You & the Society.

KATHMANDU, Nepal | 21 October 2023 (IDN) — How staggering is it that one of the best tools to fight the most formidable challenges humanity faces remains undervalued and underappreciated?

I am talking about the role that civic engagement should play in helping tackle the most intractable and urgent issues that we are pressed to deal with.  From climate change to societal polarization, we are indeed at a crossroads.

Bringing people together through community actions can be the best antidote to ensure that our planet, our civilization, will survive and thrive in the decades and centuries ahead.

I risk sounding too catastrophic, but this is not my intention. Mine, instead, is intended to be a waking call to ensure that global political leaders and the members of the civil society, both in the South and in the North, realize how essential is investing in civic action.

Unfortunately, it seems this is not their priority.

The latest SDG Summit held in New York in September this year ignored it. This is mind-blowing because civic engagement and, with it, volunteerism, one of its most tangible and visible forms in action, is the best tool to implement and, importantly, localize the SDGs.

I am genuinely wondering the reasons behind this disregard. Probably it is the fact that volunteerism is too often taken for granted and, being (wrongly) perceived as something “free of cost”, does not certainly help the cause.

Perhaps it is a question of branding and marketing.


The word itself, volunteerism, is hard to pronounce and even harder to “sell” it among the people, especially youths. In short, it is a combination of factors that impede civic engagement and volunteerism to be recognized and given due importance.

The most severe consequence of such “debasement” is that volunteerism is far from being a priority for policymakers. What a miss!

We probably need to find some global champions, highly respected personalities with a global stature and can command global attention.

Is there any sitting head of government ready to embrace the cause? What about still active and retired sports stars? What about former leaders from all walks of society joining what could be a global campaign to re-energize civic engagement?

If fully embraced, we are talking about a transformative agent of change.

While, for example, a considerable number of youths worldwide are pushing for drastic changes in the way we live and consume, far too many citizens across our nations are sitting idle.


Activism, a way of practicing volunteerism, is often seen as too “radical” and demanding that average people step in and play their role.

This happens because there is a massive misconception about how volunteerism can take shape. The truth is that there is no single way to live and experience it.

People can take up many possibilities and options, and certainly, some of these can be a better fit than others. Yet there is so much confusion, ignorance, or simply avoidance of the topic.

That’s why efforts to dispel the misconceptions around civic engagement and volunteerism are paramount. Over the last few months, the International Association for Volunteer Effort, IAVE, has provided a useful contribution on this point.

Its webinar series “Youth Volunteering and Social Change: Challenges and Opportunities” which recently concluded, offered a valuable platform to discuss practical ways forward to strengthen volunteerism agenda among youths.

A key takeaway from this exercise is the importance of leveraging volunteerism as a leadership tool that can help young people to cement their process of personal and professional growth.

A way to facilitate this process is leading by example. Yet, often, global organizations promoting volunteerism do involve young people but only in a tokenistic fashion.

Civic engagement

Providing young people with meaningful experiences in decision-making within the volunteerism policy landscape should be seen as a priority. The reason for doing so is pretty straightforward.

Civic engagement as a broad umbrella concept and volunteerism, as discussed earlier, a loose concept, unfolding different modalities of service, should, indeed, be associated with the power of taking and making choices.

Volunteering can be a direct action on the ground that responds to an unmet emergency, be it taking care of a homeless person or doing something to preserve the local biodiversity through science-based tree planting.

But it can also be about giving time, energy, and know-how to help local governments worldwide achieve their social inclusion, anti-poverty, and sustainability goals.

We know that Agenda 2030 with its SDGs, can be supported and boosted through civic actions, starting locally. In a way, citizens’ engagement at societal levels, in all its diversity, can be a direct pathway for a revolution in how decisions are taken, finally creating new room for a surge in deliberative practices.

I am talking, among others, about citizens ‘assemblies and the expanding powers given to citizens to decide on local budgets.

Back in 2020, UN Volunteers, or UNV, undertook a massive global exercise to reshape and reboot volunteerism by putting it at the centre of the global debate. The so-called Global Technical Meeting provided a unique space to think and reflect on how we can do much better to leverage the power of volunteerism.

The Call to Action that had emerged from this undertaking offered the hope and promise to truly “supercharge” new ideas and solutions to bring volunteerism to the next level. 

Unfortunately, not much has happened in three years from the excitement generated by the GTM. Volunteerism is, still nowhere close to the place it should be in terms of shaping the global agenda.

Our Common Agenda

Attempts of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres to re-booting the global multilateral system might offer some hope. One of the Policy Briefs prepared by his office in order to pave the way for a discussion on how to achieve his new vision of the world, called Our Common Agenda, is focused on meaningful youths participation in the decision-making.

Among the recommendations, there is also a call for the government to “make a strong commitment to meaningful youth engagement in decision-making at the local, national, regional and global levels and endorse a global standard for meaningful youth engagement based on the core principles”.

Will the Summit of the Future in 2024, which, according to Mr. Guterres, should be seen as the culmination of this reform, also take bold steps to recognize the role and contribution of civic engagement and volunteerism?

This week, IAVE and Forum IDS, an advocacy group representing the major organizations involved in the volunteering sector, issued a new research paper.

It offers a provocative framework to shape the deliberations at the upcoming International Volunteering Cooperation Organizations (IVCO) Forum to be held in Kuala Lumpur later this month.

Aptly entitled “A New Generation of Volunteers as Changemakers”, the document raises the stakes of the discussion around the transformative power of volunteerism.

One of the key questions its authors are trying to answer is the following:  “How can we create a more conducive enabling environment for youth volunteering?”

The answer should not just be found only in the next few days in Malaysia or among the “usual suspects”, people like me who are involved and passionate about civic action.

And this is the real challenge: how can we expand the “cake’ and involve those who have not yet paid attention to, those who do not care about the role civic engagement plays in society?

There is one overarching priority if we want to elevate civic engagement at the centre of the global debate: reaching out to those who command the levers of power. Policymakers and politicians must become the main focus of a truly global effort to promote civic engagement as the engine of a new civic renaissance. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image source: The Honors College. University of Houston.

This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 21 October 2023.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.


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