Governance and social capital

Governance and social capital (July 26, 2005)

Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

In The Problem of Trust, Adam Seligman asserted that “the existence of trust is an essential component of all enduring social relationships.” Given the level of distrust evident in Philippine society today, whether between some sectors and the occupants of Malacañang, or between the pro-government and anti-government sectors, it is difficult to imagine how our society can flourish, or even long endure.

The lesson for those who govern is crystal clear. It is not enough to build the economic and physical infrastructure of an organization or society. It is not enough to build markets, banks, stock exchanges, factories, telecommunication systems, roads and bridges. These things, concerned with financial and physical capital, produce nothing of value without trust among members of society. This all-important component is called social capital. Social capital acts as the glue that holds the financial and physical infrastructures together as well as the oil that lubricates the flow of relationships, transactions and activities through them. As such, social capital serves as the basis of peaceful politics and a productive economy.

So much time has been spent in the media discussing the economic situation of the country – the level of growth, the national debt, the growing deficit, the need for better tax collection, etc. The seeming objectivity of numbers and the authoritative confidence of financial and economic experts have pushed economic discussions to the top of the agenda for national development. As a result, many ordinary Filipinos can recite the GDP growth rate and the national debt on a per person basis from memory!

Unfortunately, media and national opinion leaders have offered little insight on the country’s level of social capital. This mainly materialistic view of national development must be corrected because it hides the fact that, for many Filipinos, the sense of being part of one nation with a citizenry committed to work together for a shared destiny has nearly disappeared. In short, we are not only economically bankrupt – we are also nearly socially bankrupt!

It is a sad state of affairs that a country whose citizens were brought up to value bayanihan, symbolized by community members carrying a house on their shoulders, should now face such social division. I don’t think that bayanihan is dead but it is in critical condition. To rejuvenate it, we need to strengthen the sources of social capital and the role modeling of leaders.

Francis Fukuyama, the author of Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, explained that “social

capital is frequently a byproduct of religion, tradition, shared historical experience, and other factors that lie outside the control of any government.” He particularly singles out religion and education as sources of social capital because of their impact on shared values. In the Philippine setting, where many schools are run by religious organizations, religion seems to be particularly relevant. The recent statements of religious groups calling for unity while advocating for reforms are along these lines. Many who have questioned these initiatives using the principle of the separation of Church and State miss the point that religious organizations specialize in values and that society cannot endure without the active propagation of socially positive values.

The role modeling of leaders is particularly potent in building social capital. By their example, leaders define acceptable behaviors for followers and thereby inspire the propagation of important habits, customs and ethical practices. In particular, honesty and integrity are virtues that leaders need to cultivate trust and, therefore, build social capital. These two attributes are related but not exactly the same. Stephen Covey, writing in Principle-centered Leadership, clarified that honesty is about telling the truth or “making our words conform to reality”. Integrity, on the other hand, is about fulfilling our commitments or “making reality conform to our words”. “Walking the talk” captures the essence of leadership integrity. Leaders who cannot admit painful truths are dishonest. Those who make promises they don’t keep or espouse values they don’t believe in lack integrity.

It’s interesting that today’s digital environment makes it more important for leaders to display honesty and integrity. Followers can quickly verify their leaders’ suspicious factual claims through texting or email. Digital video and voice recorders make it easy to archive what leaders say for easy dissemination and future reference. Woe to leaders who count on the people’s famously short memory. The digital record and the Internet do not forget. Unfortunately, most Filipinos still do not have the habit of holding their elected officials to their word. Citizens need to share their sentiments more often with their LGU leaders, especially their congressmen. Only then can we have a representative government not only in theory but also in practice.

The building of a society is a collective effort. While government wields great official power, social capital cannot be legislated nor created by fiat. Only the people’s active involvement and the sensitive governance of leaders committed to the common good can bring back the spirit of bayanihan our country so badly needs.