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A look at Fukuyama, social capital, and media development

December 30, 2009

I was reading Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold when I came across something he wrote about Francis Fukuyama:  “Fukuyama argues in his book Trust that there is a strong correlation between the prosperity of national economies and social capital, which he defines as the ease with which people in a particular culture can form new associations”. Huh.

That immediately struck me. The idea of helping people form new associations in the name of promoting prosperity within (and ultimately of) national economies is essentially a major driving force behind my work in media development. Reading this sentence pushed me to dig deeper. I began hunting down Fukuyama and what he had to say about social capital. I had read him before during my master’s degree work at SIPA, and remember feeling some connection then. I probably even encountered what he had to say about social capital. If so, it wasn’t till now that it caught my attention.

I found his article “Social Capital and Development: The Coming Agenda“. This was when the sparks started to fly. In my work, I’ve always felt that opening people to new ideas and expanding their networks of trust was integral to successful development. I just hadn’t really realized until hitting this passage that international political economists were not just exploring the idea, but even trying to write mathematical equations about it. Nice.

The following is a series of quotes from the article that struck me, succeeded by some of my own additional thinking and experiences relating to them:

“According to sociologist James Coleman, social capital refers to people’s ability to work together in groups. I prefer to define the concept more broadly to include any instance in which people cooperate for common ends on the basis of shared informal norms and values. Furthermore, many now regard social capital as a key ingredient in both economic development and stable liberal democracy”.

The community journalism program I began in Ukraine was largely founded on these principles (though not as eloquently stated). Our application was our newspaper, which brought together students and teachers from the school as primary staff to publish the paper, a local NGO that was given a page to publish content on its programs and resources, the local mayor who offered his blessing (important in a society with such a long history of government interference in news media), and local businesses that invested in the paper’s physical capital in exchange for local advertising. All of these different groups, typically splintered and mainly focused inward on group interests, suddenly had a medium that brought them together to find cooperation for common ends and shared informal norms and values. In the historical, political, and social context of Ukraine, they were strange bedfellows, indeed. But, within this program, something strange became normal.

“Societies in which people are accustomed to cooperating and working together in large organizations are much more likely to develop strong and efficient state institutions”.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? How the habit of people working together in larger groups toward some kind of larger purpose could be transferable to developing strong and efficient state institutions. In Ukraine, and other countries I’ve been to where corruption is not even corruption but just how things are done, I’ve seen first hand how people habitually undermine state institutions in order to survive. It is the only way things get done. Like the countless shopkeepers that have to keep two sets of books to overcome a tax regime that would otherwise cripple their business.

In fact, when I was fundraising for a project in Ukraine, and speaking with local district tax lawyers about the possibility of offering tax benefits to businesses donating to our project, they ADVISED me to do this off the books. ADVISED me. Lawyers. Lawyers that worked for the government. Advised me to break the law and conduct business under the table. Of course, I refused. But, when this is the society you are working in, one in which it really is everyone for him or herself, against a State that is clearly designed NOT to promote your well being in any real way, you start to see that any kind of development work is going to require countering this institutional divisiveness.

In my work in Ukraine, I couldn’t change the tax structure. But I could create situations in which people in government, civil society, education, and every day citizens joined together for a community project. Even something as simple as a beach cleanup, where everyone from the community inevitably enjoys a hot summer day, and inevitably must kick aside someone else’s trash that is not being properly disposed of for a whole slew of public and private reasons.

“Many states that looked strong on the outside proved weak because they lacked legitimacy—the former Soviet Union and Indonesia under Suharto are both good examples. Conversely, a surprising number of democracies, like Poland or South Korea since 1997, have successfully undertaken painful economic reforms”.

People can say what they want to about Ronald Reagan’s influence in the fall of the Soviet Union. Sure, there’s truth to it. But, having lived a few years on the other side of where the Iron Curtain once stood, I can say from experience that that structure imploded from a weak foundation more than anything. It looked strong from the outside, indeed.

How are you going to build a new structure to replace it, when so few really believe in the essence of a structure at all? When the preceding structure was so evidently designed to “atomize” the population, as Fukuyama calls it? So many people said to me in Ukraine, just after the Orange Revolution, “We are waiting for a leader”. Waiting is the problem. I found it better to encourage people to become leaders, even if in small ways. For instance, I gave as much control of publishing our newspaper as possible to the students and adults of our editorial staff. When one adult approached me with the idea for a special edition, I said absolutely, under one condition: she be responsible for getting it to the press, and into the hands of readers. It worked. In fact, she told me this year that she has since started a community organization, inspired by chances to be a leader, such as I provided her with.

“The sociologist Ernest Gellner put it bluntly: no civil society, no democracy”.

There should be T-shirts. This should be a campaign slogan. We need beer signs that read this as our mantra.

“Social capital is what permits individuals to band together to defend their interests and organize to support collective needs; authoritarian governance, on the other hand, thrives on social atomization”.

I’ve experienced in developing countries a crisis of confidence that every day people can change their country. Even in Ukraine just two years after the Orange Revolution, when millions of people stood up to change their country. I found in Ukraine that our newspaper was a great vehicle for building social capital in this regard. First, it gave something people could see, touch, and hand to someone else, something real. Second, it was a place to shine a spotlight on community action and activities, such as that beach cleanup I referenced. In running this newspaper, I had my first true experience with the power of self-expression to connect people to a common cause, to find common ground. It seemed that once people could witness this commonality, they could accrue social capital.

“A deficit of trust toward outsiders means that one’s strongest relationships of trust are reserved for family and close friends, creating the cultural conditions for a two-tiered moral system in which one feels few compunctions in behaving opportunistically toward others”.

I’ve absolutely seen this in my development adventures. And sadly, I see this here in America. I get a steady dose of emails promoting this mentality from the more conservative members of my family. I would love some numbers on the opportunity cost of this behavior. Economists, get to it. People understand pocketbook logic. If we can say, “Well, by pigeonholing everyone in groups, based on things like race, or economic status, or religion, we collectively cost our country X amount of dollars”, I bet you start changing some hearts out there. A family member of mine recently said he’s yet to see any studies demonstrating conclusive proof of the value in diversity. Now’s your chance to shine, economists.

“Nevertheless, as Edward Banfield explained more than 40 years ago, familism also constitutes a liability, since it denotes a lack of trust among strangers”.

Stranger danger! Stranger danger! Stranger danger! Or, stranger possible new experience that could open some important door of opportunity for us? Man, if I had a nickel for every time someone in ______ country (ANY country, developing or developed) told me about how terrible such and such group of people is that they don’t belong to.

Want to get over your fear of strangers? Become a Peace Corps Volunteer–you get a steady diet of strangers. And you begin to forget what is so frightening about “other” people. You start to see strangers as opportunities, you stop seeing them as a group.

“This ultimately puts limits on economic growth. It also limits business transparency: it is often difficult for outside investors or business partners to understand the Byzantine ownership structures and relationships among family-owned businesses”.

I’ve now spent almost two years working in media development to promote business and government transparency in African countries, which has given me a lot of interaction with transparency issues. One thing I’ve seen is how many business and government leaders justify their behavior on the “everybody’s doing it” principle. How do you overcome that? Well, news media calling people out, and “setting the agenda” by framing the news conversation around the error in this logic is what I hear from the more courageous African journalists. But how can they be courageous when media outlets have little money to pay these journalists, and so many are dependent on advertising from businesses and relationships with government officials?

We need numbers, economists. We need not only numbers for impact on GDP, but hard evidence that people at the top would benefit more in a transparent society than a corrupt society. And then we need to pump the news media full of this information (and not the number of women Tiger Woods has slept with).

“…Human beings have a tendency to build ‘in-group’ solidarity at the expense of outsiders; thus, societies with many tightly bonded groups or networks may be fragmented and rife with conflicts and hostility when viewed as a whole. Even innocuous groups that do not produce clearly negative externalities may be self-regarding and cut themselves off from information, innovation, or ideas”.

It’s this idea of cutting oneself off from information, innovation, and ideas. This is why I am in media development. I want to build channels of information flow, and build connecting points between people, especially people that would not usually or naturally connect. Media development is not the end, for me, but the means to the end of countering the act of cutting oneself off from information, innovation, and ideas.

“Sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed that it is often the heterogeneous member of a network, or the individual within it with weak ties and broken affinities, who serves as the conduit for new ideas and information into a closed group. A society with many loose and overlapping networks may be more economically efficient than one with many static, self-regarding ones”.

I love this idea of weak ties. I drove this home at the social media training seminars I did in Ukraine this summer. Weak ties are access to new ideas and opportunities. Otherwise, we are stuck. Social media offer technologically built-in avenues for connecting to other people’s connections, and thus their weak ties. Facebook and Twitter shine in this regard. Because of social media, we are on the precipice of a weak tie revolution.

“The single most difficult situation to deal with, from a policy standpoint, is a society that is thoroughly lacking in social trust”.

Well, after a society thoroughly infused with violence, bombs, warfare, I’d agree. But then, maybe a society thoroughly lacking in social trust is either in, or headed toward, an infusion of violence, etc. And yet, how many Americans don’t trust muslims, as a group? And how many eastern Ukrainians don’t trust western Ukrainians, and vice versa? For every person I talk to that exhibits this lack of trust, I hear a consistent void in this person’s information. This is why I believe information is crucial to trust.

“In the former communist world, Marxism-Leninism deliberately targeted and sought to undermine civil society and to atomize individuals; hence, it is not surprising that the vacuum of a collapsed state (i.e., the Soviet Union) has been filled with distrust and cynicism”.

I didn’t really need Fukuyama to point this out to me. But, it’s nice when someone respected for his knowledge notices something you notice, too.

“The problem that most low-trust societies face is not a total absence of social capital, but rather the fact that the average radius of trust of cooperative groups tends to be small. The kind of familism noted earlier that characterizes much of Latin America and the Chinese parts of Asia is one manifestation of this; so is the ethnonationalism of the Balkans. What is needed in these cases is to increase the radius of trust among individuals in the various small, inward-looking groups that comprise these societies, and to facilitate the building of cooperative relationships, in both economic and political spheres, between groups that typically have had little to do with one another” .

At what point do I adopt this as my mission statement?

“A uniform and transparent rule of law historically allowed modernizing societies in the West to extend the radius of trust and, thus, breed cooperation among strangers”.

It’s interesting how many people I encounter in America who are concerned with transparent rule of law, and yet are very untrusting people. Rule of law might pave the way for trust, but once both are established, it seems to me that you must then focus on maintaining both, and not just one or the other. No easy task. Especially when we as Americans export both the “virtues” of rule of law and xenophobic paranoia.

“The more realistic ways of building social capital through policy lie not at the macro, but at the micro level. At the level of a village, bureaucracy, firm, or department, there are many cases of organizations deliberately and successfully creating social capital”.

This is what I like about the Peace Corps model. Village-level change. It’s really hard to get people to listen to top down dictations from government officials telling everyone to start trusting each other and the government.

Face to face is probably the best way to achieve trust, and thus social capital. When face to face isn’t possible, media provide a decent substitute. Particularly social media, which are about as “flat” as media get. Look no further than, say, my Facebook “friends”, who are from every continent but Antarctica. On a regular basis, I can interact with people from all over the place, and I have just as much access to them as does any large company. I have a much more detailed understanding of Iran, Colombia, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh, as a result.

“Unlike conventional human capital, which involves the transmission of certain specific skills and knowledge, social capital requires the inculcation of shared norms and values, and it is often brought about through habit, shared experience, and leadership. As noted earlier, conventional education often produces social capital as a byproduct (for example, when engineers or accountants are taught shared professional standards), but organizations can seek to produce social capital as a primary output”.

That idea of shared experience, again. There’s nothing more shared than getting together a whole bunch of people from a community who would never otherwise spend a Saturday afternoon in each other’s presence, and have them roll up their sleeves and get dirty in the name of cleaning a beach. All because some other country’s government formed an organization that sends crazy Americans to other countries to do crazy things like this.

“Most developing countries actually have an abundance of social capital in the form of kinship groups or traditional social groups like lineages, tribes, or village associations. What they lack are more modern, broad-radius organizations that connect across traditional ethnic, class, or status boundaries and serve as the basis for modern political and economic organizations. Seen from this perspective, many traditional groups embodying one form of social capital can actually be obstacles to development, because they are too insular or resistant to change”.

I almost wonder if this isn’t the real issue. Not a lack of social capital, but rather too much of one kind and not enough of another. People are awfully sure of themselves and their group, no matter where they are from. And those people sure could use better information most of the time.

“Many corrupt officials do not seek to transgress social rules; rather, the rules of their society demand that they help family and friends before they see to the general public interest. Nepotism is in many ways one of the most natural of human impulses. Hence we need to consider a broader agenda of cultural change that can be achieved solely through education, training, and the reinforcement of norms”.

This is the one that fascinates me. It’s so easy to point the finger and blame leaders and authority figures for their corruption. But, often I have encountered evidence that if these people were to suddenly stop their corruption, and become honest and transparent, people would freak out and wouldn’t know what to do with them. When everyone expects someone at the top to be a certain way, how can that person reasonably be expected to change?

I think of my Peace Corps Country Director, who told me about how he’d tried to run his office–staffed mostly from the local country–with an American style of management. He said it didn’t work. No one listened to him. By treating people with respect, in public, he was summarily ignored, though people often said yes to him, as if they meant it. So, he adopted the local custom of managing people, including treating people more harshly (or perhaps “sternly” is the right word) in public. But, over time, he evolved more and more toward the style he ultimately wanted in place. Best part? It worked. Swimmingly. And, I don’t think this is an isolated case, from what I’ve seen, and that in working to promote transparency, rule of law, democracy, social capital, trust, whatever, it is important to keep in mind that there are probably very understandable, and at times justifiable, reasons for why these things are not already in place, at the “top” or the “bottom”.

Anyway, long story short, I think Fukuyama, in these ideas of social capital, offers a look into crucial concerns for development. And, whether he realizes it or not, some great arguments for media development. At least, from my experience.

Photo 1: http://www.flickr.com/photos/limonada/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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One comment

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Evgeny Morozov, Ben Colmery. Ben Colmery said: A look at Fukuyama, social capital, and media development http://bit.ly/77n3b0 […]



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