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Overlooking dwindling social and institutional capital is dangerous for society

Strong social and institutional capital is imperative to create a self-guiding democratic society. Without them, in my perspective, it is unlikely to achieve consensus among communities even on less controversial issues.

Instituting a strong institutional capital is pivotal for the fact that strong social and democratic institutions facilitate democracy-friendly dialogues and civic engagement on social, political and economic issues. Nevertheless, in our country, it seems that neither the government nor other stakeholders give the necessary emphasis on this issue.

Before arguing about elections and chanting about an obscure political change, we might have discussed how to build institutions committed to enhancing social trust and democratic governance at local, regional, and national levels. With a shaky institutional capital (and through a fragile election culture), believing that we can develop a strong democratic culture is nothing short of to be deemed wishful thinking. The effectiveness of any democracy rests on the citizens’ ability to hold their leaders accountable for their actions. This also needs a strong social capital – which is the cooperation of communities enmeshed with trust and sympathy.

Probably, it is due to our lack of willingness or ability to build social and institutional capital that we face recurring chaos when we are in social and political change. As a nation, it seems that we do not have contextual and mental preparedness to primarily defend humanness and working on social trust. This country seems to be a property of a bunch of individuals – i.e. self-styled leaders, political elites, and social media activists. The wider society seems to be under the control of these groups of individuals. Today, there is enormous power at the fingertips of the so-called political and social media activists to provoke violent conflicts than in institutions to influence citizens towards democratic friendly dialogues.

Repairing and strengthening our social capital would, thus, be a prerequisite for our social, political, and economic progress. When we have strong social capital, we can learn from each other’s repertoire of tacit and explicit knowledge. By doing so, we can emancipate ourselves from ignorance, traps of chronic poverty, and self-centred political ideologies. Strong social and institutional capital is the most viable way to cultivate planetary citizenship – i.e. citizens that take responsibilities and stress intergenerational relations of individuals and communities.

Hence, for a better future, we should work on issues that can bring cooperation, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy, and solidarity among our communities. To stand as a nation, any society needs collective assets. To this end, I believe, the following groups are among the leading stakeholders responsible for the (re)development of our social and institutional capital.

Higher education institutions (HEIs): generally speaking, HEIs are regarded as key institutions in the process of social and economic development. Therefore, it is their primary goal to help students develop cognitive skills for critical thinking, effective cross-cultural communication, empathy, the ability to recognize differences, and deep understanding of responsibilities for oneself and others. Fostering principles of sustainable development and democratic citizenship in the wider society is the other goal of HEIs. By doing so, they are expected to facilitate new cultural values of functional relations among different groups and to enhance the interdependence among communities.

The government: to instil a deep sense of understanding among communities, we need formal and informal institutional interventions. Effective political, economic, social and cultural institutions can serve as mediators of common values and interests between different communities. The government, therefore, should support institutions that promote social cohesion.

If we have a well-developed institutional capital, we can nurture our citizens with skills of non-judgmental observation, cooperation, and respect for others’ values without abandoning one’s own. From which, we can develop sensitivity, humility and respect – which are the basis for strong social capital in general and democratic way of life in particular. To the contrary, a depleted social capital would cause social distrust, political disengagement, bad governance, and it would increase the government’s cost of regulation enforcement. Thus, our government is responsible for designing programs that can promote habits of cooperation and trust among communities and between itself and the public.  

Political and social media activists: these groups of people should not merchandise themselves or chase their selfish interest at the expense of peaceful co-existence of communities. If politicians and the self-claimed social media activists genuinely intend to fight injustice, fighting the unfairness against all humanity would have been their noble cause. What we observe today, however, is that the vast majority of them esteem ethnicity and their benefits over humanity. In this sense, the argument is simple to refute their self-styled activism. The humanness of any (human) community is second to none. And, any community’s ethnic identity is a secondary attribute. Therefore, there might not be a better example to attest the irrationality and ignobleness of a politician or a social media activist other than his/her own actions of quashing humanness to defend ethnicity. In their provincial political ideology and egotism, the vast majority of our political leaders and so-called activists are breeding clientelistic social and political structure which can wreak havoc the fabric of social trust and national consensus. Their clientelistic political rhetoric would put us into a quagmire of corrupted social and political structure.

Thus, our politicians and activists should have to tame their egotism and provincialism and capitalise on humanism. If they candidly stand for the well-being of their communities, they would have used their time and energy to facilitate cooperation and trust-building between communities instead of spreading hate speech and working earnestly to ascertain how irreconcilable our differences are.

Leaders: our social, cultural, economic, and political leaders should develop their perceptual acuity. If leaders are not able to see through the fog of uncertainty (as we are today), they will fail to act proactively. Thus, it is hard to trust them as leaders if they cannot rationally anticipate the future of their communities based on existing socio-political and economic context. 

Therefore, our leaders, the different social and economic institutions, the government, and political elites should not overlook the dwindling social capital in our communities. Trust and strong relationships between different communities facilitate the production of economic and non-economic benefits. A strong social and institutional capital is, thus, a basis for our nation’s progress in all aspects.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is studying for his Master’s Degree in Research and Innovation in Higher Education in Finland. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane