Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Building Social Capital!

The Framework for Economic Growth (FEG) that was approved by the National Economic Council in 2011-12 was never seriously pursued by the bureaucracy and has since fallen into disuse (never discarded through due process) was a program of reform for unleashing the productive potential latent in the economy. FEG importantly noted the development of the much neglected area of “social capital” as an important cornerstone of the reform program.

“Social Capital” is the potential for collective action among groups and individuals in society. It implies a high degree of trust, networking ability and capacity for teamwork and collaboration. For example it was the collaboration capacity among the US research and university system that gave birth to the internet. The industrial revolution and the success of Europe in attaining economic advance and conquering the world has been attributed to the development of network of merchant towns and collaborative science across Western Europe.

In Pakistan relationship capital exists sometimes in ‘biradaris’ and in extended family contexts. The level of trust and collaboration outside such historical relationships remains low. This is severely limiting as large ventures require high levels of social capital. Historically trust networks let to the development of long-distance partnerships and joint stock companies that were able to leverage way beyond local jurisdictions and conquer the world.

How did Europe develop social capital and we despite our many claims to history manifested so well in our monuments could not create an East India Company or Royal Society or a stock exchange? Broadly speaking the answer is found to lie in the development of the urban middle class that had cut its rural roots and developed new forms of associations such as clubs, trade and professional guilds, schools, universities and many other forms of collaboration.  English Public Schools through conscious development of an esprit de corps, discipline and team sports prepared the Company administrators who ruled us for over 200 years.

While we have learnt to pay lip-service to enrolment ratios and school attendance of low quality literacy, we have yet to learn the value of social capital. Even when we do get school or college completion, questions remain about the attitude to discipline, collaboration, responsibility and accountability. If our leaders are any evidence of this we can certainly see that all elements of social capital are at very low levels.

My dream in the FEG was to take some initiative for social capital. I knew big steps were difficult for indeed the level of comprehension in the cabinet and among ministers was very low. Indeed presenting the framework in the cabinet confirmed this collective comprehension deficit. All they wanted was the ‘fat’ in their projects.

Several approaches are needed. The one that I tried to initiate was something like this.

I dreamt of an innovative Community Center in every urban locality (mohala). The premise was something like this. A place where the whole family can come in and actively engage in creativity, teamwork and knowledge development etc. with neighbors and strangers. In some sense this would be better than sending kids only to school. The involvement of parents and the whole family could set up currents and eddies of knowledge, creativity, collaboration and more that would cultivate kids way beyond our deficient education system.

The community center must be very attractive flexible space that adapts to various needs and facilitates all manner of activities. One such configuration is a 6 floor building. If possible land in front of the property (1/2 an acre) would be dedicated to a flexible playground with volleyball, basketball, badminton etc.

A basement would contain auditoriums and meeting rooms that for a nominal fee could be booked for meetings and events.

Floor 1 would have a subsidized cafeteria and coffee houses for people to sit and chat in. Such places have been shown to be great for development of ideas, innovation and networking among people.

Floor 2 would be a flexible space dedicated to women’s activities such as games, support groups, self-help, learning etc.

Floor 3 would be a similar flexible space to organize men’s activities of various kinds

Floor 4 could be a similar flexible space for the whole family to engage in activities together.

Floor 5 would be a library and networking space with high speed net access. 

Floor 6 would be a dedicated to net learning where Khan Academy and MOOCs would be organized in sessions to draw the whole family in.

(Important caveat DMG will have to allow the height restriction because this cannot be done on a 2 level building that they love.)

The point is to create a space where families can be involved in creative interaction and play. The difference spaces should allow enough activities to attract all in the family at different levels.

On each floor there will be counsellors who will try to guide and develop activities in collaboration with active participants. The counsellors should be handpicked to be the brightest young people, graduates of our finest universities and fresh graduates of foreign universities. They would be given a good salary with a 2 to 3 year tenure. More importantly this should be a challenge for them and they should be ranked on a competitive basis. Experience at these centers and a positive recommendation should be a big plus in their future ventures.

The counselors and their creativity would be an important cornerstone of this program. Activities could be competitive such as creative games, fitness programs, talks, internet activities, Khan Academy and MOOC courses etc. Groups of Counsellors would meet and share experiences within the center every week and across centers every month.

My view is that the center usage should be on membership basis although there should be a government subsidy for developing community spirit and social capital. Yet a membership charge and some activity fee would help select more serious, interested people. But the membership should not be selected like our elite clubs where it becomes friends and relatives only and restricted. The government subsidy should ensure it is for everyone and not just some select segment.

This is just one initiative for building social capital. If we have a string of these well managed embedded in the community a large number of people will develop a variety of skills and knowledge. More importantly, the process is likely to lead to a lot of innovation and further development of the theme. Social capital will develop as a result of this positive feedback. 

What a pity, this was not allowed to happen. Worse still it never will happen!