There was an interesting article in yesterday’s Washington Post detailing research that shows that centralized efforts to build more social capital in India were not very successful, and applying this research to an analysis of part of the reason why our Iraqi strategy has come acropper.
Duke University political scientist Anirudh Krishna’ has conducted research (written up in a recent Journal of Politics article called “How Does Social Capital Grow? Comparing Levels across Seven Years in 61 Villages of Rajasthan, India”) that “tracked a number of indexes of social capital in villages in India and showed social interconnectedness growing in some places and fraying in others. Krishna asked villagers, for example, whether they would prefer to own 15 acres of land on their own, or 40 acres of land with another person. Villagers in areas with high social capital were happy to trust partners. Villages with high social capital made better use of their resources, because people cooperated with each other instead of wasting money guarding against each other.
“But Krishna also found that government aid and nongovernmental organizations could do virtually nothing to build social capital — contractors and aid agencies can build bridges, but they cannot build connections between people.
” ‘You cannot build social capital from above,’ he said. ‘It can only be built by the people involved.’ “
In discussing Iraq, the Post quotes a U.S. army general based in Iraq, Joseph Kopser, a former student of Robert Putnam’s and someone who believes heavily in the importance of social capital, as saying that the efforts to build social capital centrally in Iraq had largely been unsuccessful and had led to greater mistrust. Kopser believes that the most successful efforts have been ones working with local leaders to reinforce local civil society. And Kopser believes that it is only by having local Iraqis making decisions and being empowered to carry them out (even if the execution takes longer) that more social capital, which is critical to build, will be forged.
Bob Putnam and Michael Woolcock (on leave from the World Bank and their chief point-person on social capital) agree. Putnam related that his Italian research confirmed that it is hard to build social capital top-down, and Woolcock notes that the notable success of the World Bank in building social capital came from the The Kecamatan Development Indonesian Project which “aimed more than $1.3 billion at more than 40,000 villages, but every decision about how to use the money has come from democratic decisions at the village level, where funds are released only if diverse groups can show they are willing to work together. It has sometimes been described as a democracy project disguised as a development project.”
On the importance of social capital, the Post story begins with an anecdote from Columbia University sociologist Peter Bearman’s book (*Doormen*) that “dived into the world of the white-gloved workers who open the front doors of expensive New York apartment buildings, he found that most people who applied for jobs as doormen never got one. Most doormen, however, had not applied for their jobs. ” In other words, Bearman found that doormen got their jobs through social capital (who they knew, not what they knew). Much more can be seen on why social capital is important here or in Section III of Bowling Alone.
For the full article, see One Thing We Can’t Build Alone in Iraq by Shankar Vendatam (Washington Post, 10/30/07, p. A3)