How social capital enhance sustainable development
Why do I believe that public spaces are essential for democracy and open society, and why do I believe it is so important to preserve them? To ensure that we are on the same page let me refer to the work of Robert Putnam first.
Robert Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard University who for 20 years was engaged in a detective story. It is a story worth telling. He was concerned with a topic that was quite obscure: the character, quality and performance of local government in Italy, and specifically, the effectiveness of Italian regional governments. He wanted to answer one very simple question: Why do some governments work better than others?
In the 1970s, the Italians created an entirely new set of regional governments. Each regional government had the same powers and looked essentially identical. They all had substantial resources. But the soils in which they were planted were different: some regions were quite backward, some were Catholic, and some were controlled by Communists. What happened to these genetically identical institutions as they developed in these different soils?
Putnam and his colleagues studied the performance of these governments, looking at administrative efficiency, the number of day-care centres or irrigation projects they produced, and their responsiveness to citizen inquiries. They discovered that some regional governments were very efficient and effective, and others were clear disasters — corrupt, and inefficient.
So why did some governments work better than others? What were the secret ingredients, the secret elements in the soil?
Putnam and his colleagues had lots of ideas. Some regions might be richer; more economically advanced, and thus could afford better governments. Maybe it was education. Maybe it was related to the political party system. They had many hypotheses, many possible explanations.
But when they did the analysis, they never expected that the best predictors of government performance were — choral societies and football clubs! Reading societies and hiking clubs, folk dancing associations and other community clubs. And so on. That is, some communities had dense networks of civil engagement. People were connected with one another and with their governments. It wasn’t simply that they were more likely to vote in regions with high-performance governments, but that they were more connected horizontally with one another through multiple face-to-face relations in a dense fabric of civic life.
A norm of reciprocity had evolved in these regions, the type of reciprocity that makes a community work, and of course also makes governments work more effectively and efficiently. The more successful regions had this dense civic fabric, this tradition, this habit of connecting with one’s neighbours and with community institutions. These regions were also wealthier and more economically advanced.
For a long time, Putnam and his colleagues thought that it was wealth that produced choral societies. They thought that people in economically advanced, more affluent places could afford to take the time to become engaged in community affairs, while the poor peasants did not have much opportunity to join a choral society. They thought wealth produced choral societies.
They had it exactly backwards. It was not wealth that had produced choral societies; it was, at least in the Italian case, the choral societies that produced wealth. That is, two identical regions one hundred years ago were equally backward, but one happened to have a tradition of civic engagement and it became wealthier and wealthier. They discovered to their amazement that this pattern of civic connectedness was a crucial ingredient not only in explaining why some institutions work more effectively and efficiently than others, but also, in explaining levels of economic well-being.
Three other concepts are important.
The first is civil society. This refers to a situation where between the individual and the state there stands a network of social institutions that are independent of the government. The integrity of such autonomous institutions — churches, football clubs, and cultural institutions — is governed by the rule of law. Authoritarian regimes on the other hand, are intolerant of these independent social institutions and either ban them or re-shape them into associations controlled by the state and its organs.
The second is civic community. This is a principle for democratic systems whereby individuals can not only actively and voluntarily participate in intermediate institutions, but also these organizations can actually influence the state. A key indicator of a civic community is the vibrancy of associational life. Key here is cooperation in face-to-face horizontally ordered groups (sports clubs, cultural association) that create social capital that can then be used to influence public affairs. People who learn how to work together have the capacity and the networks to represent their views and voice demands upon public officials. Participation in civic organizations inculcates skills of cooperation and a sense of shared responsibility for collective endeavours. These effects do not require that the manifest purpose of the association be political. Taking part in a choral society or a bird watching club can teach self-discipline and an appreciation for the joys of successful collaboration. These are skills and aptitudes that are critically important in the civil realm.
Third, Putnam distinguishes bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding involves the engagement with a similar stratum of people (same ethnicity, age, profession, religion, etc.) and can in turn reinforce the existing beliefs and prejudices. Conversely, bridging assumes the engagement with different strata of people and thus can contribute more to the promotion of trust and tolerance. Although the relationships formed by bonding social capital may not facilitate collective action, bonding social capital is still a necessary precursor for the development of bridging social capital.
Following the publication of Putnam’s research, a growing body of evidence indicates that the size and density of social networks and the nature of interpersonal relationships significantly affect the efficiency of social, economic and political institutions.
Why do some governments work efficiently and effectively, while others do not? The key ingredient is social capital, and as Putnam would say, “choral societies” and civic associations.
Those who live and are active in post-Soviet countries such as Kyrgyzstan could very well argue that building social capital as a strategy for improving government institutions and economic performance is not a feasible approach since it would take an inordinate amount of time. The rich networks of communal association that existed before Italy’s regional government reforms in the 1970s and that produced such different outcomes had been around for a century or more. Kyrgyzstan cannot wait decades for associational life to mature. This is a serious point and deserves consideration.
It is quite important to understand the devastating legacy of Soviet rule in this respect. The USSR was an authoritarian state with very specific characteristics that are not usually found in other authoritarian regimes. A key feature of Soviet society was the extreme degree of atomization. The repressive apparatus of the state penetrated into the pores of society. At issue was not simply the suppression of political opposition, political, and human rights — most authoritarian states do this. The Soviet apparatuses of repression suppressed unmediated human and group interaction no matter what it's content. Such activity was considered a threat per se regardless of the content of the activity. Under the Soviet regime, the most innocent initiative to form a dance group or a stamp collectors club would be squashed. All significant human and group activity had to be mediated and controlled by the state. For students to form an alpine club they would have to seek the permission of the local Komsomol (young Communist’s League), and if approved the club would be absorbed into its system.
An atomized population does not have the opportunity to learn the benefits and habits of a group endeavor and is locked in its relationships to its family and a narrow circle of very close friends. This is a terrible scar left on contemporary Kyrgyzstani society from the Soviet period.
Kyrgyzstanis are prepared to invest their time and resources in ‘significant others’, i.e. relatives who are near and dear, not in others who are more distant. But social capital is all about people spending their resources on more distant others as well. It is about cultivating trust, norms of reciprocity and engagement in networks. This lack of social capital in Kyrgyzstan really does matter. Social capital has been shown to improve economic performance, affecting individual’s earnings and subjective well-being. Its role in health is important. It is also the foundation on which good institutions can develop.
Can the development of social capital be accelerated through the development of public spaces? It certainly can if programs are designed with this intention in mind.
Let’s consider the following simple case. You can fight crime in a neighborhood in one of two ways: you can increase by 10 per cent the number of policemen, or you can increase by 10 per cent the number of people who know each other’s first names and thus watch out for each other. The latter builds social capital and has been shown to be a more lasting and cost-effective crime-fighting strategy. 
Social capital does not require centuries to be built-up. It can be increased in a short period of time. But for this to happen, social capital has to be integrated into public policies that design interventions with this in mind. Social capital’s role in improving the quality of life, economic performance and the effectiveness of institutions of government is increasingly being recognized, and a variety of approaches for policies to create and sustain social capital are now available.
Building associational life with a rich texture of human interaction is critically important in a country such as Kyrgyzstan with its legacy of Soviet-sponsored atomization. The lesson from Putnam’s work is that this associational life does not have to be structured around political goals for it to have a deep impact on political life. In this context perhaps, the time has come to pay attention to seem humble but deeply more organic things — building public spaces, supporting choirs, football clubs, and dance groups. In a short period of time, one may find an improvement in the country’s civic life.
 Robert D. Putnam with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton:1993).
 It is probably a factor in explaining the seeming inability of Kyrgyzstanis today to cooperate and the highly fractious nature of civil life. [
4] Katarzyna Growiec and Jakub Growiec, “Social Capital, Trust, and Multiple Equilibria in Economic Performance,” paper, Institute of Econometrics, Warsaw School of Economics, 2003.
 Bruce P. Kennedy and Ichiro Kawachi, “ The Role of Social Capital in the Russian Mortality Crisis,” World Development, no. 111, 1998.
 Public Health and Safety in Context: Lessons from Community-Level Theory on Social Capital Robert J.Sampson, Ph.D., and Jeffrey D.Morenoff, Ph.D
 See https://socialcapitalresearch.com.
 See “Social Capital and Public Policy,” www.westerncape.gov.za (South Africa); “Social Capital — A Discussion Paper,” Performance and Evaluation Unit, April 2002, UK Cabinet Office.