Many students of political science, sociology and development economics are familiar with theories on social capital. In short the argument goes something like this: In a society which has a large degree of social capital people tend to help each other out more. According to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, social capital can de defined as “the collective value of all social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”. Further, Putnam argues that societies or nations with high degree of social capital are more prone to have democratic governance.
2008 will be an important year for Bangladesh. From January 2007 the country has been under the rule of a military backed care-taker government. Both former prime ministers have been put behind bars on corruption charges; together with many of the country’s other former political leaders. There is a ban on all political activities. In August last year students of universities throughout the country started violent protests against the military rule in place. They had the support of distinguished professors who during the protest were jailed together with students on charges of violating the emergency power rules. Yesterday the professors were pardoned by the chief adviser and they could leave prison. Still, many students are awaiting their sentences and silent protests have been carried out at Dhaka university campus.
The actions of the professors showing support for their students and the support networks for the professors could be seen as signs of social capital. Risking repressions from the military and police, young people still choose to stand up for their political rights. On the other hand, Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world with the highest rate of corruption, in contradiction to most theories on social capital.
Last week I witnessed a traffic incident that got me thinking about the social capital issue. In an intersection of a busy but rather small street (rd 11, Banani for you familiar with Dhaka) a small car hit a rickshaw (one of those bicycles with a seat that fits two-four persons). The rickshaw was hit very lightly with no damage done to the vehicles, the driver and customer of the rickshaw or of course anyone in the car. I had a sigh of relief. Then suddenly the driver of the car just deliberately started driving again, slowly smashing the rickshaw under his front wheel. The rickshaw driver and his customer had to jump of the rickshaw not to be injured and the rickshaw was totally destroyed. The rickshaw puller tried to rescue his rickshaw, pulling it out from beneath the car. He stared angrily at the driver of the car while at the same a police officer approached the situation. The incident was disturbing traffic and the police officer made the not so intelligent decision of starting to abuse the rickshaw puller both verbally and physically with his wooden stick. All this while the driver of the car drove off. It should be added that rickshaw pullers most often rent their rickshaw for a daily, weekly or monthly fee. They earn very little and work extremely hard and are often the subject of abuse from tired and overworked traffic police officers. The rickshaw puller in this incident probably lost an entire day income if not more for the reparation cost and the loss for the time of reparation. The driver of a car is generally much better off than a rickshaw puller.
For me the above situation is just such a clear example of a giant lack of social capital. Of course there are a million counter examples of when the opposite happens, when people instead help each other out. But in Bangladesh the most vulnerable are many times horribly badly treated by their fellow nationals who are better off. It comes on all levels; from rich politicians hiding wealth instead of paying the much needed tax, garment factory owners building large estates while not paying even the ridicules low salaries to the factory workers on time and in incidents such as the one above.
Hopefully, a national spirit very distant from the one presented here will rise and prosper, and social capital will somehow grow stronger in Bangladesh to create an environment where true democratic forces can be created and voted in power in the elections that should be held as promised during 2008. Next time I write I will try to be in a more optimistic mode, writing about one of the millions of great examples of people showing each other solidarity and respect as you also see often here in Dhaka.