Too Much of a Good Thing? Social Capital as Political Elixir  
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In our last post on the prospects for a transition away from clientelistic politics in the Philippines, we noted how important organization by civil society was in the successes of the cities of Cebu and Naga. 

As we mentioned, one language for talking about such organization was popularized by Robert Putnam in his seminal book Making Democracy Work. Putnam argued that the key to explaining the variation in the way the government worked in Italy was variation in social capital (in particular, the way it worked in the north and the way it failed to work in the South).

Putnam defined social capital as:

features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

As we mentioned in our last post, Putnam used very original ways of measuring the behavior of government and social capital. In particular he associated social capital with the density of associational life measured by the extent to which people took part in different types of societies and organization. The idea was that such participation builds trust and cooperation. In practice when international institutions and social scientists have thought about building such social capital, they have thought about trying to encourage associational life, for example inducing people to go to meetings.

This was precisely the sort of thing that the World Bank thought would induce social capital in Sierra Leone, a process studied by Katherine Casey, Rachel Glennester and Ted Miguel as we reported before.

As their paper puts it:

The CDD approach attempts to bolster local coordination —for example, by setting up village development committees—and to enhance participation, by requiring women and ‘‘youths’’ (adults under age 35) to hold leadership positions, sign off on project finances, and attend meetings.

But is this really the right way to build social capital? More importantly, will the sort of social capital really solve the political problems of a society like Sierra Leone?

In recent work with Tristan Reed of Harvard, “Chiefs: Elite Control of Civil Society and Economic Development in Sierra Leone, we question the logic of this connection in Sierra Leone. 

In the paper we exploit the history of chieftaincy in Sierra Leone to study the impact of the power of chiefs on economic outcomes and social capital. We find that the more powerful is the chief the worse is economic development in terms of education, asset ownership and the diversification of the local economy.

But we also find that places which have more powerful chiefs tend to have more social capital, in particular as measured by the density of associational life. This is a result which cannot happen according to the standard view of social capital, and yet, if you look across the 149 Chieftaincies in Sierra Leone, there is, if anything, a negative correlation between social capital and development.

This finding is quite a shock for a literature firmly anchored in the Italian experience. This superficially puzzling result, we suggest, arises because more dominant chiefs have been better able to mold the “civil society” and the institutions of civic participation in their villages for their own benefit and continued dominance.

We argue that these correlations can be explained by the fact that the political economy of rural Africa deviates in important ways from that of developed countries. Political or social institutions which look like they would increase accountability in the principal agent literature, function differently in many weakly-institutionalized polities. Indeed, they do not function to control politicians but are structured by them to further their power and their own control over society. In this, chiefs are the local equivalent of the “personal rule” at the national level as described by Jackson and Rosberg’s seminal Personal Rule in Black Africa, who define personal rule as (pp.17-19):

a system of relations linking rulers … with patrons, clients, supporters, and rivals, who constitute the ‘system’…. The system is ‘structured’’ … not by institutions, but by the politicians themselves.

Consistent with this pattern, paramount chiefs facing limited competition do indeed act despotically, but they are able to do so in part because they use non-governmental organizations as a way of building and mobilizing support. Put differently, relatively high measures of civic participation in villages with powerful chiefs is not a sign of a vibrant civil society disciplining politicians, but of a dysfunctional civil society captured by the paramount chiefs.

These findings suggest that social capital, like much else in politics, can be used for very different purposes. They also suggest that social capital is no panacea for deep political problems either. The nature of political constraints and conflicts in society shapes where social capital comes from and how it can be used. It seems then that we (and development practitioners the world over) should think hard before rushing into the field to promote social capital along the lines the World Bank tried to do in Sierra Leone.

We think this is just an illustration of a more general lesson: there is no substitute for first understanding how local politics works. Else, many interventions won’t do much (other than make donors feel good of course) or worse, in some cases they might end up simply reinforcing the hegemony of traditional political elites over the already downtrodden population.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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