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Too Much of a Good Thing? Social Capital as Political Elixir  

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.


State Capitalism, Flavor of the Month (or the Year or the Decade)

Many think state capitalism is winning and is the way forward everywhere around the world (if only the thickheaded Anglo-Saxons understood…).

We think this confuses economics and politics. We tried to argue why here.


A Lovely Metaphor  

We are biased, but we think this metaphor from Robert Shiller for Pres. Obama’s second term and upcoming State of the Union address is just lovely:


Shiller is right that the United States has an inclusivity deficit, which any politician really meaning to build a better society should urgently address. 

We would also add to his list:

  • Education: as we have argued here, the US educational system is failing and failing badly, thus weakening one of the main bulwarks of inclusivity. High school and college graduation rates for males are no better today than they were in the 1960s, and the quality of our high schools is probably quite a bit worse. How can the United States be an inclusive society when it fails to provide to a significant fraction of its population the resources necessary to compete domestically and globally?

  • Incarceration: as we have argued here, the US is locking up millions of its youths, and essentially five out of every 100 African-American males, for non-violent crimes. How can the United States be an inclusive society when it continues to create the deepest chasm among its citizens by condemning so many of its less advantaged ones to prison and then subsequently to a second-class existence scarred by incarceration?

  • Immigration: in addition to incarceration, millions of other inhabitants of this country are being condemned to second-class existence because, though born or living here for decades, they are labeled “illegal immigrants”. How can the United States be an inclusive society with this deep divide bearing on it?

  • The government vs. business: it can be argued that a particularly poisonous mix of business-government relations are emerging today as the government meddles more in business while at the same time coddling some privileged businessmen and companies (especially in the new and powerful security establishment, in defense, in finance, in health care, and in the legions of businesses now receiving government protection). How can the United States be an inclusive society when it is relations to government officials and bureaucrats that determine success in business?

  • Civil liberties: a central argument of Why Nations Fail is that economic inclusivity must ultimately rest on political inclusivity, which of course is impossible when civil liberties and freedom of thought and expression are being trampled upon. As we argued here, the United States has been taking an increasingly hostile attitude towards civil liberties. How can the United States be an inclusive society when the basic freedoms of its citizens are no longer protected from the power of the state and the whims of government officials?

So we wonder whether Pres. Obama really intends to work towards making the United States more inclusive on these dimensions?


No more “wang wang” in the Philippines?  

For several weeks now we have been discussing the long-run history of development in the Philippines and its legacy for the present, why the Philippines failed to become a “Tiger economy” and how contemporary politics is riven by dynastic control and clientelism? Is there a way out?

There is some hope that the answer to this is yes. In his inaugural State of the Nation address President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino noted:

Do you want the corrupt held accountable? So do I. Do you want to see the end of wang-wang, both on the streets and in the sense of entitlement that has led to the abuse that we have lived with for so long? So do I. Do you want to give everyone a fair chance to improve their lot in life? So do I.

The expression “wang wang”, derived from the blaring sirens of politicians’ and elites’ cars urging common people to get out of the way so they can come through, is commonly used in the Philippines to refer to the syndrome of corruption and lack of accountability of elites which plagues politics in the country.

Now there is some irony in President Aquino, a fourth-generation politician of a distinguished political family, spearheading a campaign to clean up Filipino politics and reduce corruption and elite-control.

It was the assassination of President Aquino’s father in 1983 that led to the social mobilization and the People’s Power Movement, which ended the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and catapulted his mother Corazon into the presidency.

President Aquino’s mother failed to eliminate wang wang because she had to spend a great deal of time fending off military coups and in order to regain some stability in many ways facilitated the re-consolidation of dynastic power (and perhaps dynastic politicians aren’t always the best ones to end the elite control).

But the military is under civilian control now and her son is trying to make a transition towards a different society. Can he do it? Does he really mean it?

President Aquino’s strategy appears multi-faceted. Part of it is to greatly expand a conditional cash transfer program CCT) and Community Driven Development (CDD) programs which deliver money and resources directly into the hands of poor people. The CCT program has been specifically designed to make sure that it is not hijacked by clientelistic politicians. To target the program to the poor, the government undertook a household survey to objectively identify who was poor and in the process cleared off the pre-existing list of “poor people”, hundreds of thousands of people who were incorrectly labeled poor for the sake of transferring patronage to them.

But can such a system actually break the grip of political patrons on local politics?

It might. As we argued in our discussion of the collapse of the Christian Democratic political machine in Naples in the 1970s, the construction of car factories which brought higher paying jobs was critical in making poor people autonomous from political bosses and vote buying machines. But the Naples example also suggests that organization was important too. It was crucial that the Christian Democrats were not able to control who got jobs at the car factories and the communist Italian trade unions made sure they could not. So the CCT program in the Philippines may loosen the grip of political bosses, but probably it needs organization for poor people to identify and articulate an alternative, better vision of how public good should be allocated.

The evidence in the Philippines also suggests the power of organization. Though, as we have seen, politics in the country is typically clientelistic, there is interesting variation.

Local politics is very different from the norm in cities of Naga and Cebu. Both feature reformist mayors and a local politics focused on public good provision and politicians competing on their track record.

In our field work in Cebu, we met with local organizations of poor urban people who actually endorsed different candidates. Before local elections they invite the different candidates to come and address them, and then they grade them according to different criteria. Once they have picked the one they think is the best, they work for this person’s election. This situation does not lead to a different type of clientelism simply targeted at the organized groups, but a different sort of politics. As one lady said to us:

if you sell your vote, you don’t get any services.

So vote buying is out, services and public goods are in.

When we asked where all this organization came from, we were told it was a direct legacy of the People’s Power Movement which had overthrown Marcos. People had organized to fight for the end of martial law and the dictatorships and after the return to democracy they had stayed organized and used this to try and get the new democratic institutions to deliver.

The situation in Naga is similar there though spearheaded by a reformist mayor Jesse Robredo, who tragically died in an air crash last year. But just as in Cebu, when you dig into the Naga case you see the power of organization. This has been done by Maria Teresa Melgar in an unpublished 2010 PhD Dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (“Constructing Local Democracy in Post-Authoritarian Settings: A Comparison between Porto Alegre, Brazil and Naga, the Philippines”). Just as in Cebu, the transition away from clientelistic politics in Naga has been spearheaded by intense social organization which has striven to stop clientelistic political practices and demand services and public goods.

What is unclear however is why the legacy of People’s Power was so strong in these two places but not elsewhere. It is also not clear if CCT on its own can create organization independently or in conjunction with CDD.

Some CDD programs have actually been designed with the specific aim of bolstering the organizational capacity of communities. But in this they seem to have failed, as exemplified by an attempt in Sierra Leone studied by Katherine Casey, Rachel Glennester and Ted Miguel. The failure in Sierra Leone seems to have been mostly because the program was designed without a real theory of what the political problem was in the first place they were trying to solve.

How to build effective organization and what Robert Putnam called “social capital” in his seminal Making Democracy Work in order to combat clientelism is something that the Aquino government will have to learn, and fast given that he is term limited when his presidency ends (actually the terminology of social capital was coined in the 1970s by the Brown economist Glenn Loury, but it was Putnam who popularized it and made it the centerpiece of his innovative theory of politics).

So why is it that we and the Filipinos should pin their hopes of such fundamental institutional change on a dynastic politician? There are a couple of answers, and of course one of them is wishful thinking. But more seriously, it probably has something to do with the fact that this particular dynasty is also deeply interwoven with the People’s Power Movement, which has brought down Marcos and has turned, as we have just explained, into a force towards making the Philippines a more inclusive society. More speculatively, it may well be that the political power of dynasties is a double-edged sword. That power, by shielding them, enables many politicians to fill their pockets and increase the dominance of their families. But it also enables a few, with the vision and the courage to do so, the elbow room to attempt real change. Time will show whether this more optimistic interpretation is on target, and if so, whether such an attempt can actually succeed. 


How (not to) Break Political Dynasties  

In the previous post we documented some facts about the political dynasties of the Philippines. Our discussion of the Marcos regime further showed that ranting — and doing next to nothing — about the problems of oligarchs and political dynasties has a long history in the Philippines. After 1986 and the return to democracy the 1987 Philippine Constitution introduced various changes aimed at decreasing the power of political dynasties. For example, Article II, Section 26 of the Constitution included a clause stating:

The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.

However, after 25 years, a dynasty-controlled congress has failed to pass legislation providing a definition of “political dynasty,” so this constitutional ban remains vacuous. Most importantly, the 1987 Constitution introduced term limits for all elected offices. Senators can only be elected to two consecutive 6-year terms while congressmen, governors and all other local officials can only be elected to three consecutive 3-year terms. Some political analysts and scholars were optimistic that these constitutional provisions would open the political system to greater competition. For example, Alfred McCoy, in his book An Anarchy of Families stated:

Aquino’s Constitutional Commission adopted articles designed to break, for all time, the influence of political dynasties through both universal term limits and a specific prohibition on relatives (…) holding any public office. 

Other scholars argue that term limits, de facto, rob the electorate of a meaningful say in who does and does not belong in office.

But did term limits really have the effect of removing the power of dynasties over politics in the Philippines? This question was investigated by Pablo Querubín in his paper “Political Reform and Elite Persistence: Term Limits and Political Dynasties in the Philippines”. Though the idea that term limits can break dynasties is at first appealing, when you think about it, you’ll realize that it might in ractice encounter problems. Remember we pointed out that in many provinces there was a governor and congress-person from the same family. Maybe if they both faced term limits they could just switch jobs? In fact, that is exactly what happened in many cases. For example, in the province of Camiguin the congressman Pedro Romualdo faced a term limit in 1998 after serving for 3 consecutive terms. In response he successfully ran for governor while his son Jurdin Romualdo took his seat in congress. After both served three consecutive terms in their new positions, they swapped. In 2007 Pedro went back to being congressman, while Jurdin became governor. In Camiguin, not only did the term limits not stop dynastic control, they brought another member of the family into politics who might not otherwise have been there. 

As Pablo Querubín shows, this “Alternating Offices” strategy is not the only response that dynasties have formulated to deal with term limits. Another is the “Benchwarmer” strategy. In Cebu City, for example, when Antonio Cuenco faced a congressional term limit in 1998, his wife Nancy Cuenco took over for one term. In 2001 Antonio was back as congressman. 


Term limits are inducing dynasties to bring new members into politics also seems common. Take the situation in Bukidnon province. In 1998 the sitting congressman Jose Zubiri Jr. faced a term limit. He was replaced by his son Juan. Jose switched to Governor in 2001. When Juan hit a term limit in 2007, he switched to the Senate and was replaced by his younger brother Jose Zubiri III. In 2010 Jose senior faced a term limit as Governor but what could he do with his two sons in the Senate and Congress and not yet term limited? No problem, he successfully ran for vice Governor.

An interesting feature of the political system in the Philippines is that people have no problem in running for lesser offices after they have been term limited. In Davao City, for example, crime busting mayor Rodrigo Duterte was term limited in 2010. He switched to vice Mayor and was replaced as Mayor by his daughter Sarah.

Are these isolated examples or do they represent the general pattern? In fact what Pablo Querubín’s research shows is that term limits in the Philippines did not influence the probability that the same family controls a particular political office: if in one period a particular family was Governor, the fact that there was a term limit for Governor had no impact to the probability that the Governor in the future would be from that family, relative to the previous regime without term limits.

So much for easy solutions for breaking the power of political dynasties…