A Case Study
The Dream, the Web
“Imagine a [… ] spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops.
And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops.
And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection.
And so ad infinitum.”Alan Watts on Indra’s Net
Imagine a world where everyone has a voice and no one is ignored in decision-making. A world where every single member of society is convinced of their own intrinsic value, simply because their peers honour, reflect, and expand that value giving them a say in community life and letting it shine. A world where power is something we share and that unites us rather than something used against us to divide us. This is the fundamental vision of an innumerable amount of organizations all over the world. One experience, however, is taking it to another level and making it profoundly true on a large scale: the Inclusive Neighbourhood-based Children’s Parliaments in India (INCPs for short).
The very thing that makes the experience of Inclusive Neighbourhood Children’s Parliaments in India so inspiring is also part of what makes it so hard to pin down as a case study: the sheer incommensurability of the project. Only in the South Indian state of Kerala, there were an estimated 60,000 units of children’s parliaments. A couple of years back, the estimate dropped to a far more moderate number of 40,000, give or take. This is the number of units, or what we in more sociocratic jargon would call “circles”. Even if each unit has just 10 members, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of children organized for local decision-making, just in the State of Kerala. Children’s Parliaments span almost every state of India now, covering both rural and urban settings.
Lack of rigorous documentation makes it virtually impossible to really know how many children are involved in this enormous endeavour. Needless to say, the Neighbourhood Children’s Parliaments are considered to be the largest known implementation of the Sociocratic Circle Method.
Children, Parliaments and Ministers
The word “Parliament” comes from “parler”, or “parlare”, which means “to talk”. In this particular case, it is meant as a space where children can have a voice; in other words, a forum. The formula is very simple: give children a place where they can be heard, where they can make decisions about their own lives, and they’ll become agents of their own world. This is not the same as many other existing “mock” parliaments, where young people participate in a simulation that tries to imitate the established forms of traditional government. Rather, these are groups of children making impactful decisions about the lived realities in their shared territories.
What might be on the agenda in a meeting of such parliaments of children? Well, at the neighbourhood level, the children’s parliament makes decisions that impact the lives of the whole neighbourhood, for example around issues like street lighting or cooperative farming. Or they might act on more child-related affairs: some children’s parliaments have been successful in freeing their peers from the bondages of child labour to join them in school. At the next level of federation, the village, they may solve community life issues such as child marriages. At the regional or state level, they may try to influence policy-making regarding child protection at large. At the national level, they may decide on strategies for how to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or Sustainable Development Goals. And at the global level, they may tackle an issue that affects everyone at planetary scale, for example climate change.
Giving people responsibilities also gives them a sense of recognition and empowerment. As Edwin Maria John, founder of the children’s parliaments notes: “give people realities, ask them to do something, and when they do something, they will feel appreciated and happy.”
Child ministers for UN Sustainable Development Goals
Every child in the parliaments is empowered with a ministry role, typically one for each of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: Minister of Education, Minister of Gender Equality, Minister of Climate Action, and so on. Each becomes responsible for leading that topic in their circle or community (similar to what we’d call an operational role in sociocratic settings). Thus, some of the largest problems of society as a whole become incarnated by children in their own communities.
When faced with these intricate challenges, children are empowered to become agents. From bringing other children to school as an alternative to child labour, to providing basic necessities like water, roads, electricity, medical provisions, schools, etc. to marginalized territories, children, together with their neighbours, can become a central part of the solution to problems that their own elders had yet failed to overcome.
What have children’s parliaments accomplished?
In a struggling neighborhood in the city of Hyderabad, the Children’s Parliament has had many successes. Jayalaxmi Singh, age 18 at the time of this case study, was formerly selected as prime minister and has now “graduated” to become a mentor in the neighborhood parliament. Every day, she works with her family starting at 4 am to collect garbage, which often contains hazardous waste, in the neighborhood. Then after a long day at school and homework, she helps out her local Children’s Parliament. Her local parliament meets every other week with 40 children from various schools in the neighborhood. Every meeting starts with something fun, like dancing or a game. Then they discuss problems, often related to the UN sustainable development goals, and consent to resolutions and actions to take regarding the problems.
The first success she remembers is improving issues with mosquitos by asking the commissioner of Hyderabad to improve drainage systems with standing water. The commissioner quickly took action to solve the problem. Recently, the parliament brought up the issue of child hunger. Many children’s parents, including Jayalaxmi’s, start their work day very early, and may not be able to provide their children with breakfast. After the Children’s Parliament alerted the authorities of the problem, a total of 21 health centers have started a program providing children with breakfast every day. Additionally, the parliament has had success increasing the number of public toilets, getting electricity to homes, and putting taps for running water in every home. Future projects Jayalaxmi would like to see include addressing the issues of domestic violence and child marriages. Her experiences in the Children’s Parliament have led her to seek a career as a civil servant, so she can help more and more people. When asked what she wanted readers to know, Jayalaxmi emphasized that social change starts in every home, and that her story is also the story of many children around her.
Half a world away in Raleigh, North Carolina in the US, Aaron Castelino, a 9th grader, is working with his local chapter of the World Provisional Children’s Parliament to work on the same UN sustainable development goals. They have had success planning a food drive to help with local hunger. Additionally, they have helped to plan events for World Health Day and International Peace Day. Aaron says the parliament helps with initiating projects and taking them all the way to completion.
Children’s parliaments organizing for a better world
In these examples, the parliamentary process faces children with the questions: “What kind of a world would you like to have? What kind of a world do you want for your children and grandchildren? How do we make this world become a reality? Who has the power to make that world come true? If not you, whom?”
In the process of performing a role as a set of responsibilities with their community, the children are validated by the parliament structure, which in turn makes them feel valued, leading to a peer-process of collective and individual empowerment. Every child in the parliaments gets the opportunity to experience what it feels like to be taken seriously and to be their genuine selves. Everybody gets a chance to shine and, in consequence, everybody shines brighter.
The Children’s Parliaments Journey
So, how did it all start?
In Christian parish communities in rural villages in the southern-most Indian state of Tamil Nadu, father Edwin Maria John initiated a process back in the late 1970s, starting with 17 communities of about 30 families each. By that time, Edwin had read about “Basic Ecclesial Communities” (CEBs, by the spanish acronym) in Latin America, which are self-organized groups of people, typically peasants, who gather to read and study Christian scripture, reinterpreting it in relation to their lived realities in their shared territories. This grassroots approach to organizing communal life as a way of realizing “the Kingdom of God” here on earth deeply inspired Edwin and set him on a lifelong journey.
The project led to various processes towards a more harmonious life for the community, from removing the abusive middlemen in the local fishing industry, to creating a peace committee for imparting community justice, as well as creating credit and housing societies. This project included children’s units and other specific interest groups.
Eventually, word spread around and other dioceses wanted to join. Then other ones, and then other ones, and so on. In the Trivandrum diocese in the neighbouring state of Kerala, the diocese organized nearly 2600 communities of 30 families each within 6 months.
Later efforts were made to initiate the same processes at levels beyond religious identities. That’s how the movement for “neighbourhoodization” came to be: the idea that decisions that impact community life can and should be held at the most local level possible. Edwin says he was happy to find along the process that similar neighbourhood-focussed approaches were put forward by two great visionaries in Kerala State, Pankajaksha Kurup and M. P. Parameswaran. The related initiatives gave a big push to the neighbourhoodization movement. Of special mention is the role by the Urban Poverty Alleviation Cell of Kerala State.
As the neighbourhoodization movement spread across varying villages, neighborhoods, districts and states, Edwin began to associate with UNICEF units working for children’s rights in India. Having also been involved in child-led activities as a child himself, Edwin came to focus on the vision of child-led action through neighbourhood-based child-participation forums specifically in 1999.
21-year old Swarnalakshmi Ravi, now a graduate, who as a child prime minister spoke at the United Nations, when asked “Why children?” explains: “Adults are too accustomed to the pre-established systems, so it’s harder for them to learn. Children can better adopt new patterns at a young age.”
Though it started in Christian parish communities in 1970s under the idea that the grassroots base structure can be one instrument to realize “Heaven on Earth” (understood as a utopian community), in the 1990s the neighbourhoodization movement secularized and opened its doors to children of any spiritual background in the form of the Neighbourhood Children’s Parliaments. The move towards secularization and the focus-shift to work specifically with children (one of the most ignored groups in governance overall) deeply reflects the principle of inclusion that characterizes the overall vision of the project.
Sociocracy and the Basic Design Principles
It was in 2006 that Edwin found out about sociocracy and contacted John Buck, co-author of We the People: Consenting to a Deeeper Democracy. They exchanged experiences and saw a lot of similarities in the grassroots approach to power in decision-making between the Sociocratic Circle Method (SCM) and the way that NCP was approaching neighborhoodization. They saw that the sociocratic practice of nesting and double-linking circles is not dissimilar from the Children’s Parliaments approach to federating neighbourhood parliaments into different levels. NCP began to take up more sociocratic practices such as speaking in rounds, and by fusing “neighborhoodization” with “sociocracy”, the term “neighbourocracy” was coined.
It is important to note, however, that the Neighbourhood Children’s Parliaments still have some inconsistency in their implementation of all sociocratic tools, mostly due to lack of documentation and standardization of their processes and experiences. Being spread through almost all of India, some of the more marginalized rural territories struggle with access to technology. Along with low staffing and training capacity, this has presented a major challenge in systematizing the experience of the NCP.
Some specific sociocratic tools and practices are still in the process of replicating throughout the whole parliament structure (which, needless to say, is huge). For example, some of the units of the many thousands of Children’s Parliaments have received training on sociocratic selection processes, but this practice is far from being uniformly implemented in all units due to lack of training. NCP uses consent decision-making, performance reviews, and circle roles, but not double-links. Some of the gaps in their sociocratic implementation are just a matter of time and practice, for example shortening the length of processes and sharing a uniform and thorough understanding of objections throughout their membership. However, the main convergence between sociocracy and NCP relies on the shared vision and the design principles that shape the endeavor. The Neighbourhood Children’s Parliaments are organized following these 5 basic principles:
The Principle of Smallness
Every parliament or circle is small enough that every voice can be heard without the need for amplification with a microphone or other technologies of the sort. This keeps decision-making small enough for every voice to be heard, no matter how “small” it is. It’s similar to the design principle of sociocratic circles: keeping decision-making authority in groups that are small enough to speak in rounds, so that every voice can be heard and to generate the emotional safety to speak freely. This face-to-face closeness is the basis that enables genuine grassroots governance; interpersonal authenticity at each node paves the way for transparency throughout the full structure.
The Principle of Numerical Uniformity
The principle of smallness applies at every level: from neighbourhood, to district, to national. The participation of members of the higher levels of federation follows both geographic location and the population size of said locations. The principle of Numerical Uniformity implies that in the higher levels of federation, the number of representatives for the lower levels should be proportional to how many people they represent. That way, less populated territories can not outpower more populated territories at the representative level. It also applies in the opposite direction: one member of a federated parliament can not represent more parliaments than the others in that circle, so as to avoid that person overpowering others. This ensures equivalence both among peers in a circle and among represented parliaments in federated levels, decreasing competition amongst same-level parliaments.
The Principle of Subsidiarity
Also called “Action at Lowest Levels Possible”. This is the same as sociocracy’s approach to decentralization: distribute power and decision-making authority to the most local level possible. Only push something higher up in the governance structure if a decision can’t be made at the most local level possible. Don’t push to a higher level something that can be decided at a more local level. This consists of an inversion of the power logic that rules and shapes world governance today, where the real paradigm shift of both sociocracy and neighbourhoodization lies, transitioning from truly grassroots governance rather than top-down domination.
The Principle of Recall Scope
Also called “Recall Possibility”, it means any decision made by a parliament can be taken back for evaluation. With this principle, people don’t feel that the parliaments or circle structure is more powerful than the humans using it; the members of the circle don’t have to surrender power to a prior version of themselves if a decision becomes outdated. The retractability also allows groups to make decisions and keep moving beyond uncertainty rather than remain paralyzed by fear when some information may be missing. It holds the same ethos as sociocracy’s “good enough for now and safe enough to try” motto in consent decisions. We can go ahead and move forward knowing that we’ll always have the possibility to reassess. In NCP, the recall principle is applied especially to elections in the multi-tier federation. Any person elected from one level of the federation to the level immediately above can be called back anytime by the people that elected that person; this ensures accountability of representatives by those who elected them to be represented.
The Principle of Convergence
This is about cultivating a collective identity in the neighbourhood communities, the bigger “we” that lives inside each of us. It consists of owning the parliamentary circle structure and trusting it as a reliable way to solve real-life issues of the community. They attempt to make a norm out of implementing through these neighbourhood forums everything that can be executed by them, as opposed to bypassing them. This ensures that the circles have enough activities or tasks to perform. When they do things together they have reasons to come together and through such interactions they develop stronger community ties and collective identities: a key factor when assuming political challenges and responsibilities.
Depending on whom you ask, you may also see the list of basic design principles include Multi-tier Federation, Neighbourhoodization, Consent-based Decision-making, Sociocratic Elections, and Inclusion.
Sowing the Seeds for Global Change
The Neighbourhood Children’s Parliaments in India are quite an enormous effort already, but neighboroucracy doesn’t stop there. The Neighbourhood Children’s Parliaments have inspired and built close relationships with many other projects working along the same lines, weaving this dream together across different age groups and continents.
The Neighbourhood Community Network is acting as an umbrella organization with a broader focus that encompasses adults as well as children. Meanwhile, under various other names like “children spaces”, “children’s assemblies”, or “child circles”, similar parliament initiatives are sprouting around the globe; from India to North Carolina, from Nigeria to Chile, these initiatives are joining to form a Provisional World Children’s Parliament with the aim of taking the “provisional” part off the title once they have incorporated representatives from at least 20 countries. They also have members and units in the UK, Tanzania and Cameroon, as well as prospects in Israel and Madagascar.
Across urban and rural settings, working with children as well as adults, from the public squares of villages in the global south all the way to the seats of the United Nations conventions in Geneva or New York, neighbourocracy is interweaving people from radically different cultures and contexts into a mesmerizing dream: a world where no one is ignored, and where every voice, no matter how “small”, is able to shine and be seen for its unique absolute value while also reflecting the glow of all others, amplifying it infinitely. In Edwin’s own words: “more than a single organization or project, we are a movement.”
We have yet to see what other parts of the world the neighboroucracy movement begins to spread to, and how these different endeavours manage to weave and integrate with each other. If enough of these circles, parliaments, forums, spaces, and other emerging community governance practices begin to bloom, giving everyday people, children and neighbours with names and faces, the possibility to make decisions about their everyday lives and territories, thus shaping their reality, would we still have a need for centralist government apparatus like the modern nation-state?
When casually asked “So what’s next for the children’s parliaments? What are you most excited about?”, 77 year-old Edwin swiftly responds, only half tongue-in-cheek: “Global governance from below.”
You may also be interested in…
- Edwin John’s recently published neighbourocracy booklet “Hello, Neighbourocracy!”
- Swarnalakshmi Ravi’s master’s degree dissertation titled “How to Carry the Voices of Children from the Grassroots to Global Governance through Neighbourhood-based Children’s Parliaments Using Sociocracy”.
- Swarnalakshmi’s interview with SoFA
- Power to the Children documentary: a documentary about Children’s Parliaments in India
- We have a Sociocracy with Youth page that has a couple of other resources.
- “Heaven on Earth” video about Children’s Parliaments.