What about Pakistani social capital? By Rabel Akhund

  • by

IN the coming weeks and months a lot will be written about the firm grip of the IMF in which Pakistan will find itself. Writers will write about the state of our national coffers, our economy and the plight of the poor.

However, in this article I want to address a different aspect of the current crisis, which, if dealt with properly, can contribute to greater overall prosperity.

For many years, I have walked past the statue of Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Place opposite the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square in London. Cavell was a British First World War nurse who was executed by the Germans for helping Allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium to neutral Netherlands. She became the symbol of humanitarianism because, faithful to her profession, she also helped a number of German soldiers and, indeed, anyone else who needed help.

On the four panels of the white granite monument behind her statue are carved the words ‘Humanity, Sacrifice, Devotion and Fortitude’. These words are in line with Cavell’s beliefs and can be seen in what she said to the Anglican chaplain who saw her the night before her execution to offer her communion. She said, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words are also inscribed beneath her statue.

Walking past Cavell’s statue, I have always been reminded of the Three Swords (Teen Talwar) at the Clifton roundabout just past Clifton bridge in Karachi. Inscribed on the Three Swords is Jinnah’s slogan ‘Unity, Faith and Discipline’ which represents his idea of the building blocks for a successful and prosperous Pakistan. Words such as these are not just inscriptions on marble. They represent the moral stock of a nation, its norms and its character. A rigorous application of these norms can enhance a nation’s social capital.

The idea of social capital is not new. It goes back to the 1960s when Jane Jacobs used it in relation to urban life and neighbourliness and later Pierre Bourdieu brought it within the academic sphere when discussing social theory. Most recently, it has been advocated by Robert Putnam, a Harvard academic, in his book Bowling Alone.

Putnam describes social capital as “connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called civic virtue.” Recognising the importance of social capital, the World Bank has described it as the glue that holds together the institutions which underpin a society.

While aspects of Putnam’s research and arguments are, and will be, disputed, his basic message is clear and undisputed. Social interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other and to knit the social fabric. This can be done through civic participation, volunteer groups, participatory democracy at the community level and such other activities that require social engagement by ordinary citizens.

The resultant advantages of such interaction and social connectedness are higher educational standards, better health and greater economic prosperity. Social capital allows citizens to resolve their collective problems more efficiently and in high social capital areas public spaces are cleaner, people trust each other more and the streets are safer. Individuals, firms and even nations prosper economically with the presence of high social capital. With the presence of higher social capital and greater social interaction, our awareness of the fact that our fates are linked with those around us leads to trusting connections and individual traits that are better for the society as a whole.If we analyse the state of Pakistan’s social capital in the words of Jinnah, we will find that with a civil war raging on our western front, we do not score particularly high on unity. Furthermore, name any kind of difference and we will find it difficult to distinguish ourselves from our neighbours, be it religious, ethnic or sectarian. We have plenty of faith but some quarters of our society have it misplaced in the realm of extremism. And, most will agree that Pakistanis do not score highly on discipline. We rank high on any corruption index of countries in the world and as individuals we will try and cut corners given any opportunity.

In his recent address to the board of governors of the IMF on Oct 13, 2008 our adviser on finance Shaukat Tareen said that “although the multiple crises have been difficult to face, they have given us an opportunity to undertake a soul searching exercise and identify the vulnerabilities that characterised [sic] our economy and society.”

As citizens and stakeholders in this democracy of 170 million, this is also a time for each of us to do our own soul searching. Economics is a social science and, by definition, it requires a social framework to operate within. The stronger the social framework, the better the economics. Creating and adding to our social capital is something each of us can do within our own communities and organisations. The more connected we are to each other in our villages, towns and cities, the more we will contribute to the social and economic condition of our country. If we can correct the imbalances that plague Jinnah’s doctrines in our own lives, we will go far in creating the sort of environment that is receptive toward economic progress and social prosperity.

We must take the lead here and lay the foundations. This is within our control and we can add value in this regard. As bankrupt as we are, we have no option and this may be our last chance.

Finally, one aspect of social capital that is not stressed upon by most western academics, perhaps because they take it for granted, is the precondition of peace. Without peace there can be no prosperity. We must find a swift and lasting solution to the war on our western front. No amount of economic aid or loans will pave the way for economic progress and economic independence without a swift resolution to this bloody war.

Without peace, we may as well throw in the economic towel and heed Ghalib’s words: “Chippak raha hai badan par lahoo sey pairahan/hamaari jaib ko ab hajat-i-rafoo kya hai” (my shirt is sticking to my body with blood, where is the need to darn my pockets now).

The writer is an international commercial lawyer.



Leave a Reply