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If you see a group of people somewhere and ask who they are, the first answer may be locals or strangers.  If there is an earthquake or major fire rescuers will not distinguish between them. Governments will do their best for them, one and all.

But if you enquire more closely they may prove to be citizens, visiting relatives, recent immigrants, foreigners working in the country, long-term residents, tourists or international aid workers – or just some friends from “another island”.

Citizens: The citizens will probably have been born in the country, and be the only ones with voting rights.

Citizenship can of course be acquired. A New Zealand citizen living in Australia can take Australian citizenship (after a course of instruction and a brief ceremony) and will then have two citizenships and two passports. Countries such as the US can have great problems with “illegal” immigrants who have yet to acquire citizenship.

Elections: In a democracy the major formal responsibility of citizens (apart from being law-abiding and good family members) is to elect representatives to the Parliament. The leader of the largest group will then become prime minister.

This requires that the citizen should, to the best of his or her ability, learn about current issues and opinions in the community, and consider which of the candidates is best equipped to handle the business of government.  Today this is not just the management of schools and hospitals, roads and shipping, but also finance and taxes, relations with neighbouring states and other members of international organisations such as the United Nations or the Commonwealth.  All our countries are becoming more and more involved with regional issues.

Voters should have considered opinions, on all or at least some of these issues, should discuss them with friends and neighbours, and encourage them likewise to vote in the next elections. This may well lead to joining a political party, and perhaps playing a part in electioneering.

This is the citizen’s opportunity to speak up, to express views on policy matters.  It is the basis of democracy.

Plainly enough it becomes more and more important as countries become increasingly involved in regional and international issues.  In the Pacific we have many small states and institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum which can make great difference to our lives.  And there are others.

To go a stage further, it is open to an active and ambitious citizen to stand for Parliament and to seek the support of the voters and to put his or her own views forward.

Civil society: With the development of communications and the spread of education, people in one country know more about others, which has led among other things to the growth of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  The focus on issues such as Human Rights and standards of justice around the world, and good governance.  Governance refers to more than the operations of a government; it involves all the processes of decision-making and the inclusion of a wide range of people and institutions, perhaps in several countries.

In recent years people have come to talk about “civil society”, which may be defined as the world- wide community of good citizens who are concerned about standards of governance world-wide, and are prepared to campaign for improvements in countries they judge to be lagging.

This in turn has led to talk of “Pacific citizens” and even “global citizens.  Indeed, the world is getting smaller every day.

by Roger Peren, Board member, Centre for Citizenship Education