Children can Fix Our Broken Democracies. In India, it’s Already Happening.

The Big Idea

Neighborhood-based Children’s Parliaments


A January 2020 report published by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge found the following:

“Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise. In the mid-1990s, a majority of citizens in countries for which we have time-series data – in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia – were satisfied with the performance of their democracies. Since then, the share of individuals who are “dissatisfied” with democracy has risen by around +10% points, from 47.9 to 57.5%.”

Report by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge, 2020

The report from Cambridge echoes what researchers are increasingly finding across both the developed and developing worlds: people of all ages, genders, races, and political beliefs are losing faith in democracy. 

The threat facing democracy is alarming.

But it is not irreversible

A group of dedicated visionaries and volunteers from across the world believe we can combat that loss of faith by expanding a successful model of participatory ‘bottom-up’ democracy: children’s parliaments at a national, regional and global scale.

The History of the Idea

Neighborhood parliaments began in the late 1970s in a coastal village in southernmost India. The Catholic Church asked a young priest, Edwin M. John, if he could overcome problems of corruption and violence plaguing a village of about 2,000 people. Father Edwin began by organizing neighborhood meetings of about 30 people each, representing 30 families. In typical Indian fashion, participants sat on the ground in a circle. They heard each other without microphones and talked about their problems and what to do. 

After 17 neighborhood parliaments had formed, each selected a representative to a parliament of the whole village. With this two-level system in place, the problems of violence and corruption largely disappeared. And not only that, people began tackling other problems such as money-lenders with exorbitantly high interest rates, housing, and drinking water. They also set up a village court called the “Peace Committee” to settle individual and inter-family disputes.

From this local democracy experiment in a small village at the tip of India, a national and now international movement has grown. Father Edwin showed others how to organize villages into local democracy that are fair, efficient, and responsive to everyone’s needs using the following principles:

  • “Neighborhoodization” – people/families organized as territorially inclusive  neighborhood-based units for participatory governance.
  • Federation – Multi-tier federation of neighborhood-based units with each level sending representatives to form the level immediately above.
  • Smallness – Parliaments at all levels have no more than 30 participants, so everyone knows each other. Paraphrasing Gandhi, no one can go on fooling others in a face-to-face community.   
  • Numerical Uniformity – Parliaments at each level represent similar numbers of people – no more big neighborhoods and small neighborhoods, big and small districts.
  • Quick Recall –  All representatives are quickly recallable. 
  • Subsidiarity – Discuss and handle issues at the lowest level possible.
  • Convergence – Channel all activities possible through the network of interconnected parliaments.
  • Consent – All policy decisions, including elections, made by consent, which is neither unanimity nor majority vote, but “acceptance” based on “good enough for now and safe enough to try.” (He learned about consent from “sociocracy,” a similar organizing concept developed in the Netherlands.)

What began with adults in neighborhoods quickly evolved.

In his work Edwin noticed that children grasp the parliamentary methods quicker than adults. Based on the success of the adult parliaments, he started organizing children’s neighborhood parliaments to work in parallel with adult parliaments.


Children can contribute significantly in a nonpartisan way to the improvement of adult-run, democratic systems. Children also have a natural ability to conduct soft power diplomacy locally, regionally, and even more broadly. That natural ability can be further strengthened by serving in a Children’s Parliament.

The results speak for themselves:

  • When the Indian State of Tamil Nadu created its first State Children’s Commission, the Commission contacted the Child Prime Minister from the children’s parliament system. When the Child Prime Minister showed interest in the Commission’s work, the members of the commission involved the children more deeply.

The children soon made substantial inputs to the Commission’s policies, including changing the standard education curriculum to train teachers in and require them to use interactive exercises.  

  • A state level children’s parliament in India helped an indigenous tribe get official recognition so that it could get special government support. The tribe had tried for 10 years to get such recognition. 

The children in the parliament all had experience working with their local governments and proceeded to gather petitions, made appointments with the appropriate state officials to discuss the petitions, arranged further meetings with the officials that included adults and children from the tribe, and followed up with further letters. The official recognition of the tribe was awarded within three months!

Children’s parliaments can also galvanize bureaucratic structures to prioritize and move more quickly on specific issues:

  • Children’s parliaments were introduced to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Most people living there did not have such basic amenities as clean drinking water, basic sanitation, medical facilities, or adequate housing. The new children’s parliaments decided to petition the new Lt. Governor, the administrator appointed by the national government. When the governor looked at the petition, he called a meeting of his officers to inquire about the true nature of the situation. The officers admitted that the petition’s description of the situation was accurate. 

To everyone’s astonishment, the Lt. Governor ordered that the petition’s complaints be resolved as quickly as possible. Had the children not succeeded, there could have been demonstrations, a strike or even possibly violent actions by the adults. 

  • Jayalakshmi Aripina was a child who grew up helping her parents pick rags in the slums of Hyderbad. She was elected by the children as Child Prime Minister of the Hyderabad children’s parliament and had a few conversations with a city district official about the need for more daycare centers. These conversations led to the establishment of 21 care centers as well as a closer government relationship with the children’s parliaments. 

Supported by the children’s parliaments, Jayalakshmi advocated for free breakfast food programs that are now adopted by two India States, more public water tanks were set up in the slums, and so forth. She recently received a Changemaker Award, recognition from the British High Commission in India, and other international attention. She got a scholarship to attend college and continues to volunteer for the Neighborhood Community Network as an advocate.

When trained to work with democratic institutions, children become involved citizens as adults. Globally, there is a general concern about the decline of democracy. In general, having young people growing into adulthood already equipped with citizenship skills is essential to the vitality and stability of any democracy.

There are many examples around the world of children, acting as individuals or in small groups, making a difference in the actual operations of democracy. However, children’s impact on adult-run governments is much greater if they are organized across society and address issues in a coordinated way at different levels ranging from immediate neighborhoods to national and even global levels.

Why I Believe in This Idea

Democracy is suffering, and if we want to live in a world where we all have a say, we are going to have to try a little innovation. Starting with children has multiple benefits, including everything outlined above – but there is even more to this idea.

We are becoming too disconnected with one another. Stitching ourselves back together at the neighborhood level doesn’t just make societies more participatory.

It also helps reduce the chances that someone falls through the cracks.

And right now, we have too many people falling through the cracks.

This Big Idea can help with that.

Who’s Behind the Idea

Edwin M. John

Father Edwin Maria John, a Catholic priest hailing from Southern India, championed grassroots unity in the 1990s. He recognized that people could work together effectively and resolve their issues locally. Inspired by the success of adult parliaments, he envisioned connecting children based on their neighborhoods. With 30 children in each parliament, they could share agendas and responsibilities. His dream is to amplify children’s voices from local to global levels, passing through villages, towns, cities, and districts.

John A. Buck

Residing near Washington, D.C., John A. Buck was inspired by Gerard Endenburg, a Dutch thinker, and his sociocracy governance system. He translated significant sociocracy works into English, introducing the system to the English-speaking world. While aiding organizations in adopting consent-based decision-making, John encountered neighborhood-based children’s parliaments implementing elements of sociocracy even though unaware of parallel developments in the Netherlands. Intrigued, he joined forces with Edwin John, contributing additional sociocratic elements to the Children’s Parliament movement.

Swarnalakshmi Ravi

Swarnalakshmi, a product of the Children’s Parliament movement for over a decade, now works as a DEI consultant and Livelihood Advisor at “VVNT.” Introduced to neighborhood-based Children’s Parliaments at age 10, she continues to volunteer. As a person with a disability, Swarnalakshmi found inclusion and a voice within sociocratically-operated parliaments. She held positions such as Communication Minister, was elected by the children to positions with ever broader responsibility, and engaged in advocacy efforts, from improving local conditions to helping indigenous communities gain recognition.

With two master’s degrees in Political Science and International Relations and Global Governance, Swarnalakshmi initiated a Provisional World Children’s Parliament. She supported children’s UN appearances, raised funds, established children’s parliaments in Kenya’s Kibera slum, and collaborated to reduce gang violence in Belize City with the “International Police Executive Symposium.” Swarnalakshmi is committed to advancing the Children’s Parliament movement globally.

How You Can Get Involved

For more information on Children’s Parliaments, Neighborhood Parliaments, or Sociocracy, contact any of the individuals above, or me!