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Opinion

March 3, 2016

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Social capital

Capital within the capitalist mode of production has historically been counter-posed to labour. In a situation where the labouring class does not own any productive assets, workers are faced with a stark choice: to sell to the capitalist the one resource they have, the capacity to labour, or else starve.

Thus in its stylised form, the relationship between capitalists and labourers is essentially a power relationship. In Pakistan this is true for both industrial capital as well as capitalist farmers. In the latter case, the power of the landlord drawn from control over land is accentuated in many cases by various forms of peasant dependence, such as indebtedness and the need for protection through the landlord from coercive action and extortion by local state officials. Thus the basis of economic and social inequality in Pakistan is the highly unequal distribution of productive assets and unequal access over capital markets, public services and the process of governance.

The persistence of such inequality leads to the suppression of the capabilities of the majority of the people and at the same time creates a widespread sense of deprivation and grievance. The constraints on developing the capabilities of the people prevent sustained long-term growth. The sense of deprivation undermines the social fabric. Both create the threat of extremism which has now become the principal challenge to both state and society. Therefore, addressing economic and social inequality is necessary to achieve long-term economic growth as well as national integrity.

One way in which the current acute economic inequality can be mitigated is through the provision of equal opportunities to all citizens for the development of their human capabilities. One of the means of achieving this is the creation of social capital through the strengthening of local communities and their participation in the process of economic growth.

My experience in organising communities in nine districts of the Punjab as the first CEO of the Punjab Rural Support Programme in the 1990s as well as evaluation of grassroots economic initiatives in other parts of the country, suggests that the development of community consciousness is key to the building of social capital.

Poverty occurs when an individual in a fragmented community feels isolated, alone and a passive victim of the process of deprivation. The individual, therefore, feels incapable of taking initiatives to improve her/his economic and social condition. Social mobilisation of the community essentially involves building a sense of community identity. The sense of being alone and helpless gives way to collective action through which each individual is enabled to get better access over credit markets, skill training facilities and undertaking income generating projects. Thus community consciousness enables the individual to draw strength from the community and in turn give strength to it.

Empowerment is achieved as members of the community are able to strive for individual welfare through collaborative action. The individual prospers by developing human capabilities as she/he contributes to building the human, capital and natural resource base of the community. A K Sen in his recent book (‘Identity and Violence’) argues in a similar vein and suggests that the sense of identity with others in the community can be seen as a resource, like capital.

Over the last three decades I had the privilege to be part of a group of action researchers in South Asia who made a humble contribution to developing the concept and practice of a particular form of what has been called Participatory Development. (See Ponna Wignaraja, Akmal Hussain, Harsh Sethi and Ganeshan Wignaraja, Participatory Development: Learning from South Asia, United Nations Press Tokyo and Oxford University Press Karachi, 1991.). It can be argued that this particular approach to ‘participatory development’ is a type of social capital formation. It is also, in a sense, empowerment of the poor.

As I have suggested in another book, participatory development “specifically aims at achieving a localized capital accumulation process based on the progressive development of group identity, skills development and local resource generation … the process of reconstructing a group identity, of raising consciousness, of acquiring new skills and of upgrading their knowledge base, progressively imparts to the poor a new power over the economic and social forces that fashion their daily lives.” (See Akmal Hussain: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan, Vanguard Books, Lahore, 1994.).

As Pakistan proceeds to address the challenges of achieving sustained economic growth, equity and building resilience to face the recurrent environmental disasters related with global warming, it may be helpful to consider the key role that the people of Pakistan can play. By developing human capabilities, creating the knowledge base for individual and collective initiatives, and reconstructing local communities, we can unleash the inherent dynamism of our people for a secure and prosperous future.

The writer is a professor of economics at the Forman Christian College University, Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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