Relating Social Capital

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Contributor: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Contact: Jean Bonnal

Relating Social Capital, Traditional Community Institutions and Decentralisation Processes

Main Issues

Decentralisation is no new item on the agenda of policymakers, but is now taking place in a different, arguably more favourable context in political terms. However, "the decentralisation policies that are underway in a number of less developed countries are conceived, on the one hand, under the constraints imposed by conditionalities of multilateral or bilateral donors, and on the other, to tackle political conflict linked to national resource management and redistribution, or else with the objective in mind of increasing people's participation in managing development interventions or local affairs " (FAO 1997). In the worst of cases, the objectives of decentralisation have not been achieved because of the "seizure" of decentralisation measures by local èlites, or their co-option of individuals to whom increased power has been devolved under new decentralisation laws - but the reasons for falling short of envisaged outcomes are varied and complex.

Past attempts at greater decentralisation have largely failed to take into account the vital dimension of local institutions. In the words of Norman Uphoff, "for rural development, it is important to consider the capacity of local institutions, not as an alternative but as a complement to central institutions." (...) "Local decisions can benefit from generalized knowledge just as central decisions can be improved upon by considering local knowledge (1997: 11, 19)". As decentralisation is unfolding, the largely abstract analytical concept of "social capital" may become useful both to rural communities and policymakers in igniting a new drive towards development that values local institutions. However, if policymakers are to make informed decisions, they need to know first what these local institutions are, how they work, who uses them, etc. Inter alia, local knowledge is impersonated in "traditional" community institutions: should it not be assessed and linked to the different processes of decentralisation as these are unfolding?

Traditional community institutions and traditional authority systems are not always visible to the outsider -- unless some representatives of such systems are already incorporated into local government structures, and their hereditary (ascribed) positions are confirmed and recognised officially. ("Traditional" or "Customary") "Community institutions" refers here to a variety of power structures (or 'dimensions of authority') in local communities, both 'formal' and 'informal' authorities, 'visible' and 'less visible', legal/rational and charismatic, political and religious, structural and functional, general and specific (e.g., leadership among women, youth, etc.); given this heterogeneity, focus should be made on the existing dimensions of leadership in rural areas, that can be conceived of as being "customary" in the functionalist sense -- no value judgement is implied. ("Traditional") "Community institutions" are based on interpersonal, mostly face-to-face relationships among social (rather than administrative) units that are conceptually distinct from those contained in the modern construct of the nation-state (Messer 1998).

Natural resource management (NRM) initiatives too would have to become more "embedded" in the local institutional environment, which could in the future serve as a basis for more genuinely "community-based" local development initiatives. The multi-disciplinary character of NRM is testified by the increasing adoption of 'gestion des terroirs' type of projects, beyond an initial focus on erosion/desertification control, and, ostensibly, to seek to tap such social capital through their participatory approach. Field workers involved in such projects have however often lamented a certain ambiguity concerning the objectives of the 'gestion des terroirs' method and those of 'local development'. The latter has come to be understood as a support to the emerging and strengthening of local partners, to allow these to mobilise and manage all their resources, be they natural, human, financial, etc., in order to respond, in a certain territorial area, to their needs in relation with the exterior: the town, and other regions, for example (Groupe Gestion des terroirs 1992).

This "certain territorial area" must be clearly defined in terms of policy intervention in the framework of the 'gestion des terroirs': "From the geographical point of view, we can always conceive of the village as a territorial area, which is absolutely not the case at the sociological level. From this latter point of view, the notion of "territorial area" only makes sense in relation to a [sub-village] neighbourhood. (…) The lineage[based]-neighbourhood, the only social unit producing social solidarity [and social capital], is not recognised by the administration. The administration considers the village as the fundamental social unit although the only existing articulation between the different neighbourhoods of a village is based on the common subordination to a chieftancy and, sociologically, on the presence of marriage exchanges" (FAO 1993: 106-107, parentheses added). On top of being a natural space (that can be characterised through agro-ecological data), a territorial area is a social product.

In the rural environment decentralisation policies intervene in already established political arenas which notably are marked by the legacy of numerous development interventions. Development initiatives using the rural "community" as an entry point should thus be informed by a detailed analysis of the local polity and social structure if the benefits for those who are normally excluded are to be more than marginal. In some cases, the involvement of traditional community institutions may come at the expense of broad community participation (including groups of lower social standing). However, in situations where their involvement is indeed desirable, how could this be achieved, and in respect to which form of knowledge, capacity, or organisation?

Areas of Concern or Lack of Information and Knowledge

Where local institutions have been considered, and there has been some articulation between central and local, formal and informal institutions, this may have come at the expense of broad popular participation. Be it the result of a conscious effort by its 'designers', or the unplanned outcome of local adaptation strategies, such articulation has not usually been informed by adequate sociological analysis (which takes time!). Ideally, such articulation requires that a sustainable operational mode of organisation and communication among the stakeholders of decentralisation processes be found. Although still in their "first generation", the 'gestion des terroirs' type of approaches are one way of working towards overcoming some shortcomings of "classic" natural resource conservation projects, and experience in Burkina Faso serves to underline this and justifies our - reserved - optimism (see for example the two 'gestion des terroirs' references in the bibliography below).

To facilitate greater participation on the part of marginalised groups, policymakers should take into account different levels of social cohesion, social capital, institutional capital and implementation capacity, and organise themselves in the most localised manner to ensure quick, adequate responses to immediate local needs and opportunities. In relation to local government authorities, 'urban bias' is manifest in the strong urban orientation in the terms of reference of local governments. The 'Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary' in fact defines a municipality as: "a primarily urban political unit having corporate status and usual powers of self-government." To date, the 'culture of local government' is mostly shaped by the many problems related to large cities, for the handling of many of which such governments are responsible. However, typically such problems are quite different from the scenarios that local governments find themselves confronted by in less populated rural areas (Messer 1997). But given that the restructuring of formal institutions is unlikely to be a fast, smooth, painless and straightforward process, priority may in the short term have to be given to local informal institutional development, particularly in rural areas tormented by civil conflict and where social capital is being depleted.

In terms of NRM, common property systems are almost always tightly governed by a set of exclusion and inclusion rules. FAO's research project on "Comparative Analysis of Traditional Structures in Decentralisation Policies and Programmes" aims to establish a concrete comparative platform on which to assess transferable institutional arrangements in terms of different NRM experiences. The research project seeks to reach beyond local knowledge on NRM to encompass any other social capital/knowledge of local conditions on which participatory rural development programmes could build. Such knowledge of local conditions may constitute social capital in itself, which may take the form of local institutional and organisational arrangements. The research project consists of a series of case studies, which are being carried out, in a number of areas in Mali, Mozambique, and Yemen. The focus in terms of NRM varies according to the relative importance of a given natural resource in local livelihood strategies.

The long-term (development) objective of the overall SDA/FAO comparative study is to contribute to improving the (cost-/) efficiency of local management and administration to enhance the sustainability of NRM and integrated rural development programmes, particularly in Africa and the Near East; some lessons may also be derived for programmes in Asia and the Pacific region.

In the intermediate term, an over-arching objective of the country case studies is to contribute empirical insights that will provide inputs for SDA's development of a normative product including the following two components:

  1. tools and guidelines to foster the participation of traditional community institutions in decentralisation processes. A central issue would be to determine under what conditions Governments and other actors should try to take advantage of, or build on, traditional local organisations and institutions, and effective ways and means of doing so;
  2. methods for identifying the socio-economical, political and cultural opportunities and constraints to fostering a participatory process and ways in which development interventions can effectively build on these to enhance the equitable participation of all concerned population groups. Such an objective is based on the increasing recognition that relationships of power often set the conditions for participation in development action.

The immediate objective of the case studies is to analyse the role of local community institutions in managing natural resources within the context of on-going decentralisation. The study would address, inter alia, the following questions: Who are the main players of decentralisation and of NRM? How "uneven" is their playing field? What are the rules of the game? What is at stake in decentralisation, and who are or would be the "winners" and "losers" at the local level? What is the price of (Government/outside) interference? Is there a danger that the creation of new prestigious local government positions to include the (neo)traditional èlite will be used by the latter to reinforce their power at the expense of desired rural development outcomes (as, for example, in Mauritania; see Abdoul, 1996), and/or that it will undermine the sustainability and functioning of local communities by distorting customary social interactions?

Hypotheses that Require Testing

  1. Diminishing State intervention in rural areas in conjunction with several persisting market failures have resuscitated and/or increased the role of certain traditional community institutions such as chieftancies, sheikhs, councils of elders, etc.
  2. Until present the objectives of decentralisation have not been achieved because of the "seizure" of interventions by local élites, a shortcoming that can be seriously redressed only in as far as innovative and judicious ways are found to appropriately integrate traditional community institutions.
  3. If traditional community institutions are integrated more meaningfully into decentralised rural development initiatives the net benefits outweigh the net "costs", provided that their role is formalised to the appropriate extent, clarified, and endorsed by all stakeholders involved.

Projects which are Experimenting with Approaches to Addressing these Concerns

J. Caldecott and A. B. Morakinyo (1996) refer to a community forestry project (the Ekuri CF Project) in which everyone, regardless of sex and age, participates and "potential conflicts that arise between the different interest groups are resolved through village debates, with final decisions being made by the village chiefs and their councillors" (1996: 87). Thus, the traditional groupings and power structures do not necessarily exclude lower status groups, although the quality of their participation must probably be examined more carefully before it can be proclaimed that the project has achieved fully its participatory objectives. Nonetheless, the decentralised character of such NRM projects has surely helped to overcome some of the obstacles to broad participation, including by the younger age groups. Basically, the devolution of power to the forest-owning communities, and of greater responsibility to (and an increased willingness on the part of) the local community forester have facilitated broad participation. The trust of villagers has been gained through prolonged presence in the village and continuous interaction and the community forester could serve as intermediary between groups.

PADLOS - Projet d'Appui au Développement Local au Sahel. Contact: Moustapha Yacouba, CILSS - Comité permanent de lutte conte la secheresse dans le Sahel, B.P. 7049, Ougadougou, Burkina Faso,

List Of Names Of People Who Are Currently Researching These Issues

Brief Bibliography Of Relevant Documents With Down-Loadable Text Files

Abdoul, M., "Les communes dans le processus démocratique: la quête difficile d'un pouvoir local effectif en Mauritanie," Africa Development, Vol. 21, No. 4 (1996), pp. 75-92.

Caldecott, J., and A. B. Morakinyo, 1996, "Nigeria", in "Decentralization and Biodiversity Conservation," E. Lutz and J. Caldecott (eds.), World Bank, 1996.

FAO, 1993, "L'approche gestion des terroirs: ouvrage collectif," Documents de formation pour la planification agricole No. 32.

FAO, 1997, "Relations de Processus de Décentralisation et Pouvoirs Traditionnels: Typologie des Politiques Rencontrées", by N. Bako-Arifari. Decentralisation et Developpement Rural 15, Rome (English translation in process), available also on the World-Wide Web (Internet) at:

Groupe Gestion des terroirs, 1992, "Gestion des terroirs": Problemes identifies par les operateurs de terrain en Afrique et Madagascar", Reseau Recherche Developpement, draft, January.

Messer, N., 1997, "Decentralization and Rural Food Security: some theoretical and empirical relationships", Land Reform, Land settlement and cooperatives, 1997/1, Rome: FAO. Also available on Internet at:

Messer, N., 1998, "Relating Social Capital, 'Traditional' Community Institutions and Decentralisation Processes to Inform Decentralisation Policy", unpublished.

Uphoff, N., 1997, "Institutional Capacity and Decentralization for Rural Development", prepared for the Technical Consultation on Decentralization, FAO, Rome, Italy, 16-18 December.

Other Information Considered to Be Relevant or Interesting to Practitioners

Recent seminars held on these issues include: