Three weeks into a new year; it's been a mild winter in New York so far, but now it's cold and getting colder. Time to stay indoors and finish the thoughts on democracy that I began with my last post.
That post (December 31 2012) started with the premise that democracy, so often regarded as automatically a good, ought to have to defend itself. It concluded that democracy is indeed A Good Thing but needs to be based on much more than the right to vote if it is to be meaningful.
I argued that there were three essential dimensions to democracy, of which the right to vote out a government was only one. The second is the right to organise; if that dimension isn’t there, people may be as poor and miserable under democracy as they are under any other system. But even that does not in itself create a world in which people can reach their full potential and can not be bullied. What’s needed is a third dimension for democracy – a society in which horizontal, as much as vertical, links between people are the norm.
Many people would look for evidence of those horizontal norms in a vigorous civil society. What does that consist of? And does it necessarily imply democracy for all? In this post, I’m going to argue that it can – but not on its own. I will also look at whether it is possible to create that third dimension of democracy. Can we?
What is civil society?
Civil society is often too loosely defined. The World Bank has described it thus: “Civil society consists of the groups and organizations, both formal and informal, which act independently of the state and market to promote diverse interests in society.” This is clear enough, but rather broad. A 1998 concept paper developed for the Ford Foundation defined it thus: “An intermediate realm situated between state and household, populated by organized groups or associations which are separate from the state, and are formed voluntarily by members of society to protect or extend their interests, values or identities.” (This seems to exclude non-government organisations, or NGOs, that promote the interests or identities of others; but in so doing, they are promoting their own values, so perhaps they fit in.) This is still a very inclusive definition. Indeed, this could cover everything from Greenpeace to amateur choirs to the guilds of medieval Europe.
Still, the American sociologist Robert Putnam (of whom more later) has argued that the existence of even a stamp-collecting circle may indicate the health of an economy and society. So let us accept that we are stuck with broad definitions, at least for now. (I am not including political parties as part of civil society. If it is seen as the space between the household and the state, then bodies that might themselves become part of that state should be excluded.)
Does civil society as normally understood – that is to say, NGOs and interest groups – enhance democracy?
The simplest way to answer that by asking about its effect on people’s welfare. On the face of it, it must do. Civil society in this sense is the instrument through which the people ensure that the state is acting in their interests and not against them. Without it, they have only the sanction of the vote at (usually) predetermined periods, and that is not enough. Amartya Sen, perhaps the greatest modern intellectual proponent of democracy, has acknowledged this very clearly. “Democracy does not serve as an automatic remedy of ailments as quinine works to remedy malaria,” he says in his much-read 1999 book, Development as freedom. “The opportunity it opens up has to be positively grabbed in order to achieve the desired effect.”
Sen sees participation in public affairs as an intrinsic good. But he also sees a utilitarian justification for participation, both for economic policymaking – and in setting values for society; if one is corrupt it is not necessarily because one is evil, but because one perceives such behaviour as the norm. If such norms are set by everyone in society, including the victims as well as the perpetrators, then it is less likely to be acceptable. This suggests that the participation in society indicated by a lively civil sector may limit corruption.
This is a tangible benefit, because corruption lowers living standards. In a 2001 speech in Mumbai, the economist Nicholas Stern pointed out that in those Indian states regarded by businessmen as a bad place to operate, enterprises were visited roughly twice as often by public officials as in those states with a good investment climate. While not explicitly connecting this with corruption, he does mention elsewhere the “extent and nature of regulation… and the corruption associated with it.” In the ‘good’ states, wages were rather higher, suggesting that the real losers may often be the workforce. Corruption lowers living standards – even, perhaps, for the corrupt. The implication of this, through Sen’s eyes, would presumably be that a strong civil society protects people from poverty.
How else might civil society help people besides limiting corruption – if it does?
In developing countries, the role of civil society is most obvious at ground level. While international NGOs such as Oxfam and MSF attract attention, their work may be supported by a number of much smaller international and national NGOs. An example is Sudan, where the 1984-1985 crisis saw many Eritrean, Ethiopian and Tigrayan refugees arrive in the refugee settlements in the Eastern Region. A 1988 inventory of the settlements that I helped prepare two years later showed that although much of the relief and development work in the region was funded by UNHCR, implementation on the ground – that is, basic health services and the like - were run by NGOs, sometimes international but often indigenous. UNICEF does the same; its work around the world for children is through implementing partners, often government but also NGOs, including small local bodies as well as international ones. It sounds obvious to anyone involved in development, but direct interventions on the ground by huge international bodies are doomed to failure; however much money is available, some sort of civil society is needed to get it to people on the ground.
Moreover, in developing countries civil society does far more than enable outside intervention. It often take the form of less formal community-based organizations through which people organise themselves for mutual benefit. These can include rotating savings and credit associations that provide collateral-free credit and are also social safety nets. Or they might be burial societies or even brewing or drinking circles. In a 2001 paper, researcher Diana Mitlin quoted studies that had found large numbers of grassroots organisations in (for example) Quezon City, where 22 were identified in an area of 8,000 households; Bangkok, where there were over 30 associations in one low-income settlement; Mumbai, where there were 42 organizations spread over 3,500 households; and Nairobi, where 27% of women belonged to some sort of organization – usually either brewing or rotating credit associations.
Civil society... A good thing?
The implications so far seem to be that civil society is a good thing; it’s a space between the household and the state that lets the former defend itself from the latter and from corruption, it channels development aid and it promotes self-help. It is, in short, the vehicle for the horizontal interactions that I cited, in my previous post, as the essential third dimension of democracy.
But civil society is not in itself evidence ofthis third dimension. Mitlin, for example, warns that grassroots organizations are not always positive; they may be dominated by one group or individual, reinforcing local feelings of powerlessness. They may involve few of the community, or their membership may be skewed; or groups may conflict with each other. NGOs, too, do not automatically command respect of their target groups. Visiting EU-funded development projects in the former Soviet Union some years ago, I was told that “indigenous” NGOs were sometimes poor partners, being seen by the locals as organisations whose main aim was to secure foreign development funds rather than to help their own people.
This is of huge significance in planning development policy. International organisations and national development ministries in developed countries have adopted working with civil society, particularly grassroots organizations, as a norm. This cannot be wrong in itself. Top-down projects are often founded on false assumptions and in any case, civil society can mobilise resources in a way that the state alone cannot. Besides, people have a right to participate in their future. But if grassroots organizations or NGOs behave in a top-down manner to their own members, might it be safer to do without them?
Perhaps the way civil society bodies behave is a reflection of a country’s broader polity. Mitlin seems to think so. She argues that the power structures linking people to the state can also define this behaviour to a great extent. “Problems of leadership and participation within grassroots organizations cannot be separated from the broader context of state officials’ and politicians’ relations of patronage with community leaders,” she says. It’s a reminder of de Tocqueville’s view, quoted in my last post, that it “is unreasonable to suppose that local liberties can be created at will, or maintained for any length of time, when general liberty is extinct.”
De Tocqueville was thinking of formal state-level power structures, but this is also about the relationships between people – whether their nation consists of 10 million individuals, to each of whom the state belongs; or two million families that distrust each other, and between which an unloved state keeps the balance by force. The latter description could certainly be applied to some countries that are widely seen as democracies, and in such a situation a strong civil society should perhaps not be seen as an automatic good.
Francis Fukuyama, in his 1995 book Trust: Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity, wrote: “Cartels, guilds, professional associations, unions, political parties, lobbying organizations, and the like … seldom serve the broader economic interests of society as a whole… Many economists regard the proliferation of such groups as a drag on overall economic efficiency.” This is not an isolated view. In a controversial 1982 book, The rise and decline of nations, economist Mancur Olson argued that the growth of such bodies has been responsible for the decline in some Western economies, notably Britain’s. “The gang fight is fully as rough as the individual duel, and the struggle of special-interest groups generates no magnanimity or altruism,” he wrote.
Civil society, then, can be a sign of a healthy society – but it isn’t always, and doesn’t prove the existence of that elusive third dimension of democracy, the network of horizontal rather than vertical links that make the state a servant and not a master. So there is a need to find a link that causes civil society to enhance the quality of a democracy. The Harvard political scientist and thinker Robert Putnam has long seen such a link, and his 1993 book Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy has been seminal.
Civil society and social capital: the Italian experience
In 1970 authority was devolved to new local governments in Italy. This enabled Putnam and his associates to compare the performance of these institutions, all of which were starting, on paper, from the same base – and see which ones did better, and why.
The task took over 20 years. Putnam and his colleagues used a number of ruses to test government performance – for example, writing to the local administration to ask how one could be reimbursed for medical costs incurred abroad, and comparing the speed and quality of the reply. Relative punctuality in fixing the annual budget was also revealing. Taken together with public’s own perception of the region’s efficiency, there was a startling difference between the wealthy north and relatively poor south. Clearly, the richer a region was, the better its government was likely to be; but why?
Putnam found a correlation not just with per capita income, but also with ‘civicness’ – a tendency to associate in groups. The range of groups he accepted for this analysis was very broad, including for example choral societies. The number of such groups varied from one per 1,050 inhabitants in Trentino-Alto Adige to one per 13,100 in Sardinia. Newspaper readership was also much lower in impoverished regions. So Putnam did not conclude that wealth alone created civil society. The evidence seemed to suggest a more complex link; the south had then been, if anything, more industrialized and wealthier than the North. ‘Civicness’ earlier in the century seemed to indicate more economic development now. “Economics does not predict civics, but civics does predict economics,” Putnam wrote.
It is of course one thing to find a purely correlative relationship, which of itself proves nothing. It is quite another thing to find causality. But Putnam claimed he had. His argument, briefly stated, was this: in the Middle Ages, the collapse of existing power structures all over Italy led the north and south to diverge. The South and Sicily found themselves part of a strong Norman empire: “As the centuries passed, the steep social hierarchy came to be ever more dominated by a landed aristocracy endowed with feudal powers,” wrote Putnam. In the north, however, no-one imposed order; rather, there was a dark chaos against which townspeople were forced to unite: “The solution… was quite different, relying less on vertical hierarchy and more on horizontal collaboration. …The extent of popular participation in government affairs was extraordinary.”
Putnam compared preference voting and local-government patronage to demonstrate that the south continued to have a system of vertical social relations, whereas those in the north were based on horizontal relationships and, crucially, trust in others outside the family. He regarded this as historically determined, and although he stopped short of saying that that there was no escape, he did strongly imply it. “The fate of the Mezzogiorno [midday – e.g., south] is an object lesson for the Third World today and the former Communist land of Eurasia tomorrow, moving uncertainly towards self-government… Palermo may represent the future of Moscow.”
To Putnam, what was lacking in the south was social capital.
Social capital: The missing link?
As researchers Narayan and Pritchett put it some years ago, “Social capital… is many things to many people: it is the proverbial elephant felt by the five blind men.” Francis Fukuyama, in a paper prepared for an IMF conference in 1999, commented that: “While social capital has been given a number of different definitions, many of them refer to manifestations of social capital rather than to social capital itself.” The definition he chose was: “An instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation between two or more individuals.” This fits well with the description given by the sociologist James Coleman in the 1988 paper in which he is sometimes said to have ‘invented’ the term.
Broadly, it is the existence of a relationship with or trust in others that lowers transaction costs in such a way as to make economic or other interaction much easier. Coleman cited the community of Jewish diamond merchants in New York, who can lend each other gems for inspection without huge investment in security and insurance; and traders in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market, who cooperate so closely that unrelated enterprises function in effect as a huge department store. From my own observation, the great souk of Aleppo in Syria functioned in a similar way before the awful current conflict. Moreover traders in similar commodities tended to work in the same alley, and may have shared mosques and baths. Access to such social capital may have a profound effect on living standards, although much research remains to be done on why.
Clearly we are talking here of horizontal linkages – whereas, as we have seen, civil society organizations are sometimes part of a series of vertical linkages between the individual and the state, and may themselves be based on clientelism and patronage. After all, all sorts of organizations constitute civil society, from Greenpeace to the Ku Klux Klan. We should therefore not confuse social capital with civil society although it is often done, either overtly or by implication. Is it the prevalence of social capital that is the elusive third dimension of democracy?
We should be careful here. Social capital is a young concept. Having arisen from academia, it was seized upon in the 1990s by the World Bank, which in 2000 published Social capital: A multifaceted perspective – a collection of papers that further refined and defined the concept and its place in development. It’s an absorbing and distinguished volume. But it is easy to see why the Left saw social capital and its place in development becoming a new orthodoxy if unquestioned, rather as neo-liberalism did in the 1980s. Professor Ben Fine of SOAS warned in 1999 that although the Bank was apparently abandoning the pure neo-liberal consensus, it was smuggling social capital into its position instead.
There were some problems (for me) with Fine’s argument, but he was surely right to warn that a causal link between social capital and living standards should not be established on the basis of a few studies. One should be equally careful of assuming that it is the essential third dimension of democracy, and somehow gives people ownership of the power structures that define their lives. Moreover, Fine, Fukuyama and others have suggested that social capital may manifest itself through membership of groups with objectives that are either totally negative, or clash with someone else’s. These groups could include terrorist organizations, or they could be criminal.
But while membership of such groups may confer personal advantage, is it social capital? The term ‘social’ capital implies a public good – that is to say, something from which individuals in that society can profit although they have not contributed, like clean air, civil security and fiscal stability. A culture of trust, in which transaction costs are lowered and productive cooperation made possible, is surely another. What some have called perverse social capital is not social capital, just personal capital.
Moreover if the term ‘social’ implies a public good, an organization that uses or augments social capital must be open to anyone who could reasonably hope to profit by it. Thus if I wish to join a choral society, I will be admitted (unless I truly have a voice like a corncrake; but in that case, would I wish to join?). The same applies to a local housing association or community group. But if I wish to join the Mafia, I cannot drive into Corleone and ask for an application form at the post office. Social capital, then, is a series of horizontal linkages with positive outcomes.
But can it both be created (or recreated), and be converted into civil society elements that enhance both living standards and participation in democracy? If not, then whether it is the ‘third dimension’ or not might be moot. This is important, because what is at issue is whether society can be improved.
Converting social capital
Trust cannot easily be created. Putnam argued that an individual’s most rational response to collective irrationality is to join it: “Individuals responding rationally to the social context bequeathed to them by history reinforce the social pathologies.”
But several commentators have found Putnam’s determinism too much. Moreover there are examples of the apparent creation of social capital. The highly-regarded Cornell academic, Professor Norman Uphoff, has used the example of the Gal Oya irrigation scheme in Sri Lanka, which mobilised latent social capital. In a 1988 paper, James Coleman described how residents on a new housing estate united against the contractor over building defects – and remained together afterwards as an informal housing association. He also recalled that New York print workers formed a social club that evolved into a specialist labour exchange and later provided facilities for a political party.
Can the state, or development projects, encourage this process? Maybe. The aftermath of the Soviet bloc’s breakup provides some examples. In Kyrgyzstan, where landholdings were severely fragmented by the post-1991 land reform, the EC’s Tacis programme brought farmers together for marketing and credit provision. The programme also helped municipal governments in the European Union work with counterparts in the former Soviet bloc, and several of the resulting schemes – for example, for multiply-handicapped children and a crisis centre for women – were run by and for the community. But an influential ‘champion’ for these projects was generally needed on the CIS side, indicating that vertical power structures were still in place. And in any case, was social capital being created, or simply enabled?
A useful analytical tool here is Norman Uphoff’s division of social capital into two types: cognitive and structural. The former covers norms, values, attitudes and beliefs that create and “reinforce positive interdependence and ...mutually beneficial collective action.” Structural forms, by contrast, are the roles, rules, procedures, precedents and networks that assist such collective action “by lowering transaction costs, coordinating efforts, creating expectations, making certain outcomes more probable, providing assurance about how others will act, and so on.”
It seems that structural forms help cognitive forms express themselves. A good example may be found in the creation of agricultural service cooperatives in the former Soviet Union after 1991. Agricultural output declined by more than 35% between 1990 and 1996, largely because the end of the collective farm had deprived farmers of inputs such as fertilisers and cut them off from their markets. In Ukraine in the late 1990s, smallholders, many of whom had taken a cow as part of their share of a dissolved collective, produced 65% of the milk, but only 10% of their production was reaching dairy plants. The EU’s Tacis programme helped farmers fight back through an agricultural cooperatives project. The new cooperatives provided alternative sources of inputs and marketing. They did not always take root, but there were notable successes.
Crucially, the state had contributed structural social capital, in the form of appropriate legislation and policy. But in doing so, had they created the cognitive social capital from scratch, or simply allowed latent networks of trust and cooperation to reassert themselves? Maybe the latter. In 1917, before the Revolution, there had in fact been about 11,500 agricultural cooperatives in the Russian empire, with about 1.1 million members. Norman Uphoff, in his discussion of the Gal Oya scheme, reports that there was residual social capital in the form of cultural practices.
None of this proves that cognitive social capital can not be created from scratch, and the jury is still out. But there is scant evidence of it. What is clear is that it can be recreated, with judicious support from the state or from development agencies – for example, legislation that protects those who take part in joint enterprises, or a guarantee that no-one will be penalised for collective action. There also seems to be sufficient evidence that social capital, seen as horizontal networks of trust, will eventually manifest itself in the form of civil society organisations that have their roots in a society in which relationships are based on trust and not on patronage and power structures.
So – back to the questions I began with. Does the existence of civil society imply a healthy democracy, complete with that third dimension? Not necessarily. Can that third dimension be created? Yes, in a manner of speaking, through the creation of structural social capital. And it’s here that we should see a very large danger sign.
The creation of structural social capital should be confined to enabling mechanisms; good standard statutes for co-ops, for example, or mutual savings systems. At no time should the state believe that it can create cognitive social capital. Should it try, we would be back in the era of the utopian belief systems that made the twentieth century such a dodgy place to be.
Which takes me right back to the thought with which I began the first of these two posts a few weeks ago – the imposition of democracy upon the unwilling or disinterested. A country may have little social capital, either because it has a harsh economic system in which people are forced to compete for survival, or because they are divided along ethnic and religious lines. I have lived in examples of both types of country. In both cases, social relations were vertical; the horizontal structures were not there, and there was scant trust between people. One cannot create social capital from above or outside, because a horizontal society is about what people do of their own free will. All one can do is hope that they do it. The third dimension of democracy is essential; it can be encouraged; but by definition, it cannot be created by anyone other than the people themselves.