Academic journal article Africa

Researching Social Capital in Africa

Academic journal article Africa

Researching Social Capital in Africa

Article excerpt

Research in different disciplines has sparked curiosity about the relationship between social capital, economic development, and good government (Coleman, 1991; Putnam, 1993). Roughly stated, the theories suggest that where people of different backgrounds talk to one another more, trust their neighbours, and share norms that support openness and compromise, we are also more likely to observe better government and higher levels of economic development. Talking and trusting enhance the flow of information important for entrepreneurial activity and the design of public programmes. They promote the informal dissemination of news about the behaviour of officials. They make long-term investments in projects and fixed assets more attractive, by reducing risk. In this way, they help community members take advantage of economic opportunity and make their institutions more accountable.

In Africa, local wisdom takes social capital seriously. The concepts and theories resonate with observations made by people on the ground. For example, in interviews many Ugandans remarked to the authors that Tororo District, in the eastern part of their country, was a poor performer. Why? They drew attention to several social characteristics. One was the coexistence of people from five different ethnic groups whose languages were mutually incomprehensible. In Tororo, linguistic diversity prevented people from talking to one another. A second reason was the recentness of settlement. Many people had moved to the area within the past fifteen to twenty years, to escape fighting in the north of the country. They brought a diffidence born of their uprooting. Even university students from the district expressed hesitation about entering certain areas because of their reputation for high crime and violence. Indeed, during the period of the survey research in Tororo, a village adjacent to one in the sample `seceded' in a minirebellion, while residents of others ambushed buses along the main road. The district was notorious for high levels of tax evasion. Several district officials were under investigation for misuse of funds and later lost their jobs.

Elsewhere in Uganda, when asked which districts seemed to perform best and why, local leaders often mused that two areas in the south, Bushenyi and Rukungiri, were doing especially well and lamented that people in their own districts seemed not to be `development-minded' and `do nothing because they think others will bring them down' or are `just interested in themselves'. Similarly, in Botswana, in southern Africa, assistants remarked that North East District always seemed ahead of others, `because families there believe in education--they always do better in the examinations--and people come back from the capital to help make their district work'.

If the data bear them out, theories about the effects of social capital have important consequences for development strategy and especially for decentralisation programmes. They imply, first, that identical institutional forms may yield dramatically different practical results, depending on the social context into which they are introduced. Some communities may be better positioned to use local control to generate collective benefits than others. As a Ugandan businessman observed to one of the authors, in many cases decentralisation is just a way to `move the looting away from the city and let the local big men join in'. In others, it appears to inspire better management. Second, they point to the need to work with local associations and community leaders to build a civic culture that will enable new organisational forms to work. And, third, they encourage us to think broadly about a range of institutions and procedures that tap culturally specific forms of social capital.

The main aim of this article is to prompt others to join the effort to understand how community-level variables like social capital influence state-building in Africa by presenting early findings from research in progress. …

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