Understanding Social Capital: Practice and Potential

By Safwan A Khan

Over the years, the concept of social capital has evolved greatly in the scientific literature and in practice. While there is a traditional setting that perceives social capital as a network of individuals sharing values, norms, and cultures, and thereby collectively contributing to common causes, the concept has taken a much wider connotation in the highly connected and globalized world of today.

Today, social capital encapsulates social networks that go beyond physical interaction of individuals and yet allow collaborative practices for a common cause. Popular social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. provide an excellent example in this regard. The online world also allows for easier expansion of social networks, owing to ease of connectivity offered by a multitude of forums. Diaspora engagement in domestic affairs in the origin country, for example, has significantly enhanced over the years with the evolution of information and communication technology (ICT). Moreover, online networks have allowed individuals from different countries to interact and form groups regardless of physical distances.  To top this all, the phenomenon of urbanization is increasingly bringing people together in cities. This clustered agglomeration has resulted in creativity-led economic growth.

More importantly, the emergence of participatory practices under which governments reach out to the stakeholders through collaboration with civil society organizations have further enriched the concept of social capital. These partnerships help build trust with communities and make it easier to implement policy interventions for public welfare. In this context, one can also think of the idea of “participatory governance”, which calls for enhanced communal interaction to make governance meaningful and accessible at the grass-roots level. We have lately seen governments relying on communities to help towards better implementation of immunization programs, curbing tax evasion, better management of waste and sanitation services etc.

It is also useful to note that the potential of social capital lies not just within the domain of networks between various groups and organizations, but also within them. Termed as horizontal and vertical associations (World Bank), this distinction is important as it allows for concentrated efforts to enhance whichever gets weaker at a certain stage. For example, an organization might have excellent partnerships with like-minded organizations, but its own performance might be suffering due to lack of coordinated efforts and team work within its own staff.

Another important aspect of social capital is enhancement in human resource development through social networks. There are numerous examples that can be cited in this context. For instance, micro-finance institutions in many parts of the developing world are helping the less privileged take entrepreneurial activities that not only provide them with a livelihood but also benefit the economy. In Pakistan, one can look at the example of the Gulbahoa Project in Karachi, a micro-level initiative that has today become a successful and thriving enterprise. Numerous civil-society organizations, individually as well as collectively, also contribute towards social capital by working on various human development themes that uplift community lives.

All the same, one also has to be mindful of the negative aspects of social capital: well-connected networks can also exist as drug cartels and militant gangs, for example.  Speaking relatively, it thus becomes all the more important to form and strengthen social networks that promote better practices and common good and therefore subdue the negative impacts that can accrue from worse forms of social capital as mentioned above.

In itself, the multi-faceted nature of social capital allows for tremendous potential that can be reaped for socio-inclusive development and growth. In that, one can focus on various themes, ranging from education, health, women empowerment and youth engagement to publicly-driven anti-corruption practices (as in the case of www.ipaidbribe.pk). However, prospects for enhancing social capital lie in establishing networks that recognize the importance of inclusive development and actively engaging with these networks for better service delivery in education, health and youth development.

*Safwan A. Khan is Research Analyst and Advocacy Coordinator at Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan (SDPI)

Comments are closed.