Waylaid Dialectic

June 1, 2010

Making Development Work? Making Democracy Work [review]

Filed under: Governance — terence @ 5:02 pm
Tags: , ,

oh boy, more thesis blogging…

In the 1970s Italy was home to a political experiment on a grand scale: decentralisation. For the first time since unification, real power – both to make rules and provide services – was devolved from Rome to regional governments. Their budgets went up dramatically as did their (potential) influence on the lives of Italians. For the people of Italy, decentralisation was the realisation of a long-frustrated impulse, present across the country, for greater regional autonomy. For a political scientist decentralisation was a natural experiment just begging to be studied.

Robert Putnam was that political scientist. And over the space of two decades, working with a series of Italian colleagues (particularly Robert Leonardi and Raggaella Nanetti) Putnam undertook an in-depth study of the impact of the changes on regional politics. The end result of this was the book Making Democracy Work (MDW).

In the early sections of MDW Putnam plots some reasonably significant changes in regional politics which appear at least partially attributable to the decentralisation. Regional politics became less partisan and more consensual (although this is at least partially a product of the gradual weakening of radical left-wing ideas over the same time-frame). Political actors also became more pragmatic. The regional political sphere grew at the expense of the local and the national.

These are all significant changes, but the real story, the one that propels Putnam’s intellectual odyssey, isn’t so much what changed as what didn’t.

The north of Italy, which had always been reasonably well governed, remained that way – and became wealthier as a result. The South, which had always been poorly governed, remained that way – and stayed materially poor too. A dramatic change in formal institutions appeared to have little impact on regional patterns of governance. Why? Come to think of it, why was the south so much more poorly governed in the first place?

Quality of Governance - darker = better. Source Putnam p84

Putnam’s answer to both of these questions is ‘social capital’. A term that has subsequently become ubiquitous in political science and, to a lesser extent, international development.

The term Social Capital, as Putnam has it, encapsulates an amalgam of several related societal traits, particularly trust, norms of reciprocity, and density of associational networks.

Trust, and norms of reciprocity, when they extend beyond their natural home of the immediate family, are crucial to successful collective action because they provide the ‘glue’ that enables participants to overcome classic collective action dilemmas such as dealing with free riding and tragedies of the commons. If the norm is to do one’s bit, then you can trust others will do their bit too. And because you don’t want to be ostracized you’re likely to obey that norm, particularly as you can reasonably rely on others to do so. Which means your effort won’t have been to waste. If the norm is not to overgraze the common, then you’ll trust others won’t either. And because you don’t want to be ostracized you’re likely to obey that norm, particularly as you can reasonably rely on others to do so too. Which means your sacrifice in not overgrazing will likely be rewarded by a sustained commons.

Associational life is critical Putnam argues, because repeated beneficial interactions with others outside our family groups (as game theory predicts) will lead to increased levels of trust. And associational life also fosters societal norms.

Increased social capital will lead to better government for the simple reason that good governance requires more than just formal rules and coercion alone. For government to work solely through formal mechanisms it would have to be so draconian and interfering that it couldn’t help but be anything but inefficient. Instead, it works better if people are somewhat inclined to follow the rules even when they won’t get caught. More than that though, democratic government (and possibly autarchies too?) works better when people trust that a broad sector of the populous share, at least to some degree, their own objectives. If they do, then they are far less likely to resort to clientelism and patronage politics. Finally, a culture of collective action is also conducive to the mass movements which are needed to counter-balance vested interests and keep governments honest.

Better government will lead to more economic development because a balanced and non-predatory government provides both the public goods and the incentives necessary to foster innovation. Above and beyond this though, social capital also facilitates markets because trust smooths private transactions. You’re much more likely to invest if you know the bank isn’t going to run off with your money. You’re much more likely to purchase if you know that you’re not being sold a lemon.

What’s all this got to do with patterns of development in Italy? Putnam’s answer is that, as early as eleven hundred patterns of community and governance arose in Italy that were critical to determining patterns of development in modern times. Throughout the middle ages the south was ruled through strongly hierarchical systems. The north, on the other hand, by historical accident, ended up ruled through city states where associational life flourished. Path dependency meant that, through-out all manner of subsequent turmoil and transformation, these patterns of political life continued to the present day, at least to some extent. The end product was that, at the beginning of the last century social capital was much higher in the north than the south.

Low levels of social capital and poor governance don’t necessarily matter that much if a country’s economy is based on peasant agriculture. However, modernity demands more, and – Putnam argues – a modern economy and large scale society requires social capital as much as it requires human capital or investment capital.

Putnam’s explanation is a compelling one, which potentially has a lot to offer political scientists and those involved in political development. But his work has been critiqued. Conveniently, I haven’t read those critiques yet (bl**dy students!) but I think I can anticipate them.

First, Putnam’s conceptualisation of social capital is confusing containing, as it does, cause (associational life) and effect (trust and norms). While social capital is a useful term for popularising an idea, and fine within the context of MDW, it would be wisest for social scientists and PhD students to break it down into its constituent parts and research these, rather than an amalgam.

Second, associational life isn’t always a good thing: the Interahamwe would fit most definitions of a civil society organisation. To be fair to Putnam he does talk about bridging and binding social capital as well as thick and thin trust. Bridging social capital being that that exists between social units, and binding that that exists within them. Thick trust being that which you feel to those you know well, thin trust being that to those you don’t know well. And so I think, the importance of associational life can still be defended, in a slightly modified form, which has it spanning natural social divides rather than enforcing them. Even then though, it might be possible to argue (and I’m pretty sure his critics have) that associational life can be too vibrant, particularly, during times of economic stress and subsequently lead to conflict. In sum, associational life undoubtedly matters – but it’s not quite as simple as ‘the more the merrier’.

A third criticism, I suspect is that Putnam’s narrative simplifies the political history of Italy. I only suspect this because whenever political scientists try and weave narratives out of the tangled strands of the past, there’s always a historiographer around to shout – “it wasn’t that simple.” Until I read more, I can only guess the extent to which this is a disabling critique to Putnam’s thesis. But for now my guess is that such criticisms will do no more than dent it.

The final criticism is the curliest one: showing that there is a relationship between social capital and good governance, and social capital and good governance and wealth, isn’t the same as proving causality. Maybe regions are wealthy for some unknown reason, and maybe having more money leads to better government, and maybe well governed societies create trust through good government and this leads to the flourishing of associational life.

Putnam’s thought about this though. And he has some good evidence to support his version of causality. At the beginning of the 1900s there was little difference in wealth between north and south and yet civic traditions (being a legacy of the middle ages) were already stronger in the north. Social capital came before wealth.

His evidence that social capital begets good governance (and not the other way round) is less strong, I think. Partly it comes from the fact that the formal institutions of government are nominally the same throughout Italy – so it can’t be the case that better structure leads to better governance and better governance leads to stronger civil society. But what is plausible is that something else has lead to the north being better governed, within the formal political structures that it has inhabited, and that this has lead to higher social capital. Putnam’s historical tale does provide further evidence to support his explanation of causality. Although for what it’s worth, I don’t think the historical tale can count as ‘case closed’ type evidence. Which is not to say Putnam is wrong – just that the debate isn’t won in MDW and, indeed, it continues today with different empirical studies from different parts of the world finding different results.

Despite these criticisms Making Democracy Work, in my opinion, fully earns its reputation as something of a classic. It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone working on governance and development issues. Not necessarily because it’s inevitably right, but rather because it provides a very useful way of thinking about issues of governance. And even if you disagree with it, your own thinking on the issues it raises will probably be advanced.

For me, looking at governance in Solomon Islands, it fits pretty snugly to my current working research hypothesis, which is this:

Trust within Wantoks (the term Wantok approximates to tribe or maybe more accurately ‘social unit’) is much higher than trust between Wantoks. This isn’t necessarily a problem for governance at the micro-level – indeed such social capital is probably beneficial. But for the nation state, or the province, or even the village that contains several Wantoks within it, the trust differential compounds the collective action dilemmas of governance.

To see the impact of this imagine that you’re a newly elected provincial politician. Your first preference is to strengthen governance for your province as a whole as you know that, in the long run, that is what will most improve the lives of your Wantok. However, you don’t really trust the other politicians who come from elsewhere in the province. And without this trust you cannot work collectively with them. In this case you are best off reverting to your second best preference, transferring resources to your Wantok. In some small way their lives will improve. And seeing as they’re the ones who voted you into power this will also be your best strategy for staying in power.

Moreover, norms of reciprocity are likely strong within Wantoks but weak between them – which will reinforce the clientelism that you’ve had to resort to as a result of issues of trust.

Just to be clear here, my hypothesis is not that there is too much binding (within Wantok) trust, but rather that there’s too little bridging trust. If it’s true, then a central development challenge for Solomon Islands is to either, build more bridging trust, or design governance institutions which can function in low trust environments.

Or, at least, that’s my thinking at present. I know it’s ill-defined and no doubt does injustice to the cultural and political nuances of the country it’s directed at. And I’m almost certain it will change – a PhD’s a journey after all. But here at the outset, that’s where I am.

[/thesis blogging – phew]


  1. […] (previous post) Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by The previous post summarised in 1,985 fewer words « Waylaid Dialectic — June 1, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  2. Terence.

    It seems you’re a student again. (Congrats – I wish I was).

    This sounds like a really good topic. The research will be fascinating. Is it just a hypothesis currently that there is little “bridging trust” in the Solomons, or are you basing that off others’ work (or observation)? I take it you will be going there?

    Comment by Edward Tonkin — June 9, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

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