Social capital

Investing in Social Capital for Georgia’s Future

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People in Georgia often pin hopes on the state to improve their social and economic situation and to meet their own needs. Instead of taking the initiative themselves, they expect “care” from “father state.” Groups rarely succeed here in organizing around individual or common goals. According to the World Values Survey, fewer than five percent of Georgian citizens are involved in organized associations and formalized civil activities. By that indicator, Georgia lags far behind the majority of developing countries. Yet, voluntary and spontaneous cooperation of individuals to achieve long- or short-term goals is necessary to ensure democratic functioning of the state as well as sustained economic success.

Naturally, in order to join together cooperatively, members of society must first have confidence in one another. That requires sufficient social capital. Social capital implies those informal norms, values, trust and habits which cement society and enable it to develop skills of cooperation. Social capital is especially important for democracies in transition such as Georgia. Countries where members of society engage voluntarily in social partnerships to attain common goals, as a rule, have higher levels of education and health care and lower levels of poverty and crime. Such countries also tend to have efficient limited governments with minimum regulations and little bureaucracy.

The importance of social capital is often encapsulated as the need to strengthen civil society, especially when talking about Georgia and similar countries. Strengthening civil society is, by itself, important. Social capital, however, is a broader concept than civil society. Social capital is what underpins civil society, what is needed for the very existence of civil society. An initiative of several dozen people who cooperate with one another to gain some economic benefit may not be regarded as civil activity at all, but their cooperation may still strengthen relations by building trust and mutual respect. Strong social capital provides civil society with a strong support base for attainment of goals; weak social capital impedes the effective functioning of civil society.

Trust is also important for achieving economic welfare. In his book “Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity,” American political scientist and political economist Francis Fukuyama distinguishes two types of societies – those with a narrow radius of trust and those with a wide radius of trust. He cites China and Italy as examples of countries of narrow radius. Confucianism in China and strong familial-clannish ties in Italy impede the creation of larger private economic organizations and undermine confidence toward “unfamiliar” people in each of those countries. Clannishness is also a source of corruption and tension among members of society.

Along with other benefits, a wide radius of trust enables countries (for instance, Japan) to build economic relations much easier and to run and manage them at cheaper cost. Any temptation of the country’s authorities to interfere in the private space is reduced to a minimum. Societies in which the radius of trust is narrow rely for their welfare and freedom on state interference, which damages their welfare and restricts their freedom.

Fukuyama singles out the United States as a country where an especially high degree of individualism is merged with the aspiration for mutually beneficial cooperation. That ensured the country’s exemplary success from the start.

The uniqueness of the United States was recognized as far back as the Nineteenth Century by French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville. In “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville wrote passionately about the “art of association” of individualist Americans. By that, he meant private associations set up on the initiative of energetic and self-confident individuals. Those associations brought about much greater results than the mere economic, political or other benefits for which they were created. In de Tocqueville’s view, people in associations learn democratic values and cooperation and develop trust and compassion.

How does Georgia measure up in this area? There is little talk here about social capital. The only large-scale survey available in the country - Assessment of Social Capital in Georgia – was conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers Centre (CRRC) in late-2010. Georgia belongs to that category of countries which, by Fukuyama’s definitions, are characterized by a narrow radius of trust. Trust, cooperation and compassion, as well as the tradition of hospitality in Georgia, are strong inside the group (family and circle of friends). Beyond the group, however, those ties weaken. Formalization of cooperation is rarely observed here.

The majority of the Georgian population has either received assistance from or provided assistance to friends, neighbors, etcetera. According to a 2009 CRRC survey, nearly half the population believes that family and friendship ties are more important for employment than are education and skills. At the same time, narrow groups (family, circle of friends) find it difficult to build bridges between themselves or to cooperate in settling common problems. Trust toward members of society is low. According to the 2008 World Value Survey, only eighteen percent of the Georgian population believes that most people can be trusted. By this indicator too, the country lags far behind the majority of Western democracies. The feeling is strong here that “nothing can be changed” through cooperation. World Value Survey findings have shown that less than half the Georgian population believes that they have any power on their own to change fate. A similar indicator in Moldova stands at sixty-six percent; in Ukraine and Romania it comprises fifty-eight percent and sixty percent, respectively. The data of the 2007 Caucasus Barometer survey showed that fifteen percent of the Georgian population is somewhat fatalist, believing that they do not control their own situation at all.

Robert Putnam, a political scientist and professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, views membership in clubs, entertainment, recreational and other similar organizations as an important measurement of social capital. Social capital emerges more readily in places where relatively unfamiliar people spend time together. The findings of a 2007 Caucasus Barometer survey showed that less than one percent of Georgia’s population attended any club or association meetings during the preceding six months. Involvement in sport, recreational, art, entertainment or other clubs in Georgia does not exceed two percent - well below that of democratic countries. People here spend their free time with close friends and rarely venture beyond that circle, while the circle of close friends in Georgia is quite wide. Consequently, the social capital of the type of radius that would unite various smaller groups around common interests cannot be generated in Georgia. In contrast to Western democracies, even membership in trade unions is notably low in Georgia. Compassion also rarely extends beyond circles of friends and relatives; for example, membership in charitable or humanitarian organizations is virtually nonexistent in Georgia.

A narrow radius of trust, some degree of clannishness and a lack of cooperation, naturally, create problems. The simplest and most conspicuous example of that are residential buildings. Outside the iron doors of neat and tidy apartments are untidy doorways and damaged roofs. Neighborhoods find it difficult to solve problems jointly. As the 2010 CRRC survey on social capital revealed, that failure has little to do with financial issues. Clearly, weakness of social ties gives rise to much more serious problems. It impedes the development of the country. To illustrate that point, one can look to the example of the self-governance of secondary schools, namely by boards of trustees established as a significant step toward decentralization and improvement of the educational system. However, the passivity of board members – parents – has rendered these boards largely ineffective, thereby impeding improvement of the educational system.

The educational system is not the only area in which the government tried to move toward decentralization after the Rose Revolution. The sphere of economy, for example, has been largely liberalized. At present, Georgia faces serious challenges. Establishing a Western-oriented market democracy requires the efforts and involvement of citizens. Cooperation is also important in this process. Take, for instance, agriculture: Nearly half of the population is engaged in this sphere, yet this sector creates a mere ten percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Small farmers do not or cannot cooperate with one another even though that could significantly increase their production by doing so. According to the 2010 CRRC survey on social capital, attempts by international donor organizations to encourage that type of cooperation have proved futile in most cases. Failure to build cooperation is seen as some sort of invitation for government interference.

Undeveloped cooperation skills affect the democratic development of the country. Strength is not a characteristic trait of civil society, for example, non-governmental organizations (NGO). Georgia counts up to ten thousand registered NGOs, but one-tenth of them do not even operate. The impact of operating NGOs on important country processes is minimal. One of the main reasons for that is a small social base. According to CIVICUS Civil Society Index 2010, the weakest link in civil society organizations is the participation of volunteers. One third of the organizations do not have any volunteers at all. Recent tendencies even reveal a decrease in volunteerism. The degree of overall involvement of society – both formal and informal - also diminishes. Organizations are not membership-oriented and therefore derive only minimal revenues from membership fees. NGOs mainly rely on donor funding and, consequently, represent the interests of their donors. In general, civil organizations have nothing in common with the everyday needs and concerns of citizens. Hence, they cannot act as representatives and mediators of the society. A number of surveys on civil society have noted that these organizations cannot talk to political actors on behalf of larger social groups. Moreover, according to CIVICUS Civil Society Index 2010, various civil organizations squeeze themselves into narrow niches and rarely cooperate with one another.

It is important to note that social capital does not exist only in “good” form. Some groups achieve internal integrity through shared animosity towards other groups. Examples of such groups include the Ku Klux Klan and mafia gangs in various countries. In Georgia, an example of an “uncivil” civil organization today is the Union of Orthodox Christian Parents. Some members of this very efficient group are united around shared ideas and relationship, which have deteriorated more than once into expressions of hatred and violence toward surrounding people. This organization is based on voluntary membership, which is a rarity for the Georgian civil sector. One can only wonder what ensures the continuity of that membership when other groups find it very difficult to self-organize on a membership basis?! One reason may be the fact that a majority of civil organizations lack a strong cultural basis. Trust in NGOs is also low – eighteen percent, according to the Policy, Advocacy, and Civil Society Development in Georgia program. Visibility of organizations is insignificant as well. On the other hand, the Union of Orthodox Christian Parents is based on the domestic culture and values of certain groups.

A survey conducted by Robert Putnam showed what impact values and culture can have on social capital. Putnam surveyed thirty-thousand people in diverse communities in the United States during a five-year period. To Putnam’s surprise, the survey illustrated the negative role of immigration – the wider the diversity (race or ethnicity) in communities was, the further the social capital decreased, not only overall but also within particular groups.

In Georgia, political parties are also largely detached from the values and needs of citizens. The majority of parties only partially express the interests of larger groups or cannot express them at all. Here, as well, the involvement of citizens is low – only one percent of the population belongs to political parties. SCI data show a decrease in the number of political party members and volunteers. In 2006, that number exceeded five percent. This decrease can be attributed, among other reason, to the reality that political parties, the majority of which lack political platform, mobilize their members and volunteers only in the run up to elections or during protests. Recruitment of members and volunteers is primarily carried out by relatives and friends who are promised certain benefits in return for their participation. Such attitudes, characteristic for countries which have a narrow radius of trust, hinder consolidation of relatively unfamiliar members of society around ideas, values and common interests, which would, in turn, strengthen civil society.

Under current conditions, the low degree of involvement sometimes leads to extremes. That can be observed in street protests and similar radical actions. Passive and uninformed citizens are distant observers who often cannot evaluate ongoing processes adequately; disappointed, they resort to extreme forms of protest. We have witnessed a number of examples of that in recent years. Such citizens do not view taking responsibility and participating in regular processes as solutions; rather, they demand the replacement of incumbents by others who seem to satisfy their need for help from “above.”

What impedes bridging groups and strengthening social capital in Georgia? That question can be answered by examining the past. Mutual trust cannot be established rapidly or through external stimulation. It is built up during a long period of spontaneous relations and through the influence of various historic, social and economic experiences. Post-Soviet countries are distinguished by their scarce reserves of social capital. In Soviet times, people were deprived of individual choice and forced to join organizations. Instead of encouraging citizen self-reliance, the state assumed responsibility for everything. In those countries, people have lost trust in one another; by habit, they have come to believe that they cannot obtain individual benefit through voluntary cooperation, without the involvement of the state. In the post-Soviet period, this mistrust was reinforced by centralized governance and various clans. That sense of mistrust, combined with unstable social and economic conditions in many countries, further increased apathy and nihilism. Even before the Soviet Union, Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, some attempts at social activity were observed. The CRRC survey even recalled the creation of the Society for the Spreading of Literacy among Georgians, an educational organization founded in Georgia in 1879. However, those self-organized activities did not occur outside elite circles.

On the positive side, the CRRC survey on social capital shows clear signs of cooperation among certain groups today. This will inevitably increase the level of mutual trust and help to develop skills needed for cooperation. According to the CRRC survey, the majority of the Georgian population favors “fair rules” within the society. For example, ninety-eight percent of Georgian society deems it unjustifiable to take a free bus ride without buying a ticket. Almost everyone opposes tax evasion and bribery.

Apart from citizens’ efforts, what other external factors can strengthen social capital? There is no clear-cut answer to that question, especially given that social capital is built on the basis of long experience. Still, Francis Fukuyama identifies factors of influence. For instance, globalization has given rise to new habits and practices which have brought increasingly more people closer together. Advancements in communications also affect the formation of social capital. Robert Putnam identified television as one of the main factors contributing to the decrease in social capital in the United States in the Twentieth Century because it diverted so many Americans away from social activities. That opinion triggered heated debate at the time. The Internet in the Twenty-First Century has had a similar effect. The development of technologies, social media and networks has changed forms of interaction significantly. That has triggered discussions about the adverse effect of advanced communication technologies on social capital. Those technological advancements provide people with alternative means to acquire friends and partners, to establish ties with like-minded people, to plan events, to collect money for charity, etcetera. In the case of youth, new technologies have shown a positive result – in particular, schoolchildren who have access to the Internet often unite in various clubs. Social networks and media also have created a new platform of social activity for cooperation and coordination. Twitter has played a significant role in the processes known as Arab Spring. Critics, however, say that these activities are different from civil activities in the past; the lack of clear-cut leaders and strategies complicates organization and makes achievement of goals difficult. Moreover, according to researchers, Facebook motivates activities which encourage members of a group to avoid taking real risks in favor of alternative actions. Facebook users express themselves and their positions, but rarely go beyond the virtual world and hardly make an impact on ongoing processes.

Religion – to be more specific, membership in religious organizations and participation in religious rituals – has always been of great importance in forming and strengthening social capital. Some ninety percent of Georgia’s population is religious, with Orthodox Christians comprising more than eighty percent of the population. Nevertheless, a Values of Georgian Society Survey conducted five years ago with the financial assistance of Open Society Georgia Foundation showed that less than six percent of the population attends religious services more than once a week and less than twice as many attend weekly. Corresponding indicators are much higher, for example, in the United States and Spain. By analyzing various components, this survey concluded that between five to twelve percent of the population leads a religious life and that church and religion have more of a traditional connotation than that of a functioning and influential social institution.

Authorities also have levers for strengthening social capital. It is important to ensure property rights and security of society in order to enable people to cooperate in a favorable environment. Moreover, one should consider the influence of social capital in the sphere of education. Most important, in this sense, is the creation of an environment conducive to private initiatives, especially in the spheres of economy, education and health care. The less that the state is involved in these spheres, the more that individuals will become accustomed to meeting their individual needs without state involvement.

 

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