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[Andrew Sheng] Middle East and breakdown of social capital

What do the problems in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt have in common with the Oscars? The answer is Facebook and the Social Network. The latter is the name of the film about the founders of Facebook that won three Oscars. The Egyptian protestors learned how to socially connect through Facebook, having learned the techniques of social organization and use of mobile communication technology from a bunch of Serbs who succeeded in over-turning Milosevic in the late 1990s. Foreign Policy magazine calls this Revolution U. 

What the problems in the Middle East show is really the breakdown of social capital, as against economic capital and cultural capital. In his 1995 book, Bowling Alone, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam first identified the decline of social capital in the U.S. which he defined as “connections among individuals ― social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trust-worthiness that arise from them.” Modern urban living, when many of us spend time watching TV and doing things alone, reduce the time for social connectivity. Throughout Asia, rural folk lament the loneliness of cities, where there is little friendship and all human transactions are commercial.

The mobile phone, Facebook, Twitter and the like have transformed the mode of communication between friends, family and even business acquaintances, especially amongst the young. The Web, as marketing and media people discovered quickly, is the new wonder of social communication, but as people in Egypt and the Middle East also discovered, a power for social mobilization.

What Putnam lamented was the breakdown of local neighbourhood clubs and societies, where people met to share common hobbies and interests and learn to generate trust and reciprocity with other people. These would include religious societies, bridge clubs or even weekend BBQs. These social capital were mostly voluntary organizations for mutual welfare and support. As modern life made demands for higher consumption, families had to have dual-income in order to afford a higher standard of living, there was less and less time for voluntary social work and more and more time devoted to full-time employment. Similarly, as government got bigger, the state took care of the functions that civil society used to do, like supervision of hospitals, schools and even cultural affairs.

The result was alienation and distance between the individual and others, eroding social capital and trust within society and between individuals and government. This void is not filled by political activity alone.

In Hong Kong, there is emerging a growing sense of resentment against the rich that was not obvious before. Hong Kong has always been a city of contrasting incomes and wealth, but until recently, few envied the rich, because there was a sense that everyone had the same opportunities to become rich. The Hong Kong government has always provided for the basic needs of the poor, with large doses of public housing and one of the finest public health systems in the world.

But as the population ages, even as modern life speeds up, many urban poor feel increasingly alienated and a sense of loss of control over their own lives. This explains the willingness to express their protests either through marches or through anger in the blogs.

In the Middle East, the breakdown of social capital exploded as the connectivity between the masses and the ruling elite has been broken. The three most basic issues are rising population, youth unemployment and corruption of the ruling elite. In 1990, the population of Egypt was only 58 million and by 2009, the population had risen to 83 million, more than a million a year. Not surprising that youth unemployment was quoted as high as 40 percent. In Tunisia, the unemployment rate is 14 percent, but youth unemployment probably double that. With the elites concentrated on building their own nests, it was not surprising that the masses rose up in protest when food prices rose. All these add to social frustration.

There are important lessons for Asia as we embark on faster and faster urbanization. In the next 30 years, the proportion of Asians in cities will rise from the current 40 percent to an estimated 53 percent by 2030 and 65 percent by 2050. The urban drift will stress social capital even more, as large populations are moving into cities with infrastructure already creaking at the seams.

But what consolidates social trust and stability is less physical capital (hardware) and more social capital (the software) of how to make cities more liveable and where jobs and job satisfaction are attainable and sustainable. It has become urgent for Asian planners to look into not just hard infrastructure, but also social engineering on a scale never attempted in history.

So far, the faster growth through in East Asia has meant that unemployment levels have been kept at reasonable levels. Most business people see the rising urbanization as opportunities from investments in real estate and infrastructure, higher middle class spending and more growing sophisticated cities.

But in reality, the harder stuff is all in creating what Putnam calls bonding social capital and bridging social capital that mutually reinforce each other. Bonding social capital is uniting people who are alike, either on a religious, ethnic or cultural basis. Bridging social capital is about linking people who are not alike, such as rural-urban differences, religious and ethnic differences. In this global, multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural environment, it is vital that bridging social capital is constantly fostered, nurtured and strengthened.

It is not surprising that Indonesia has been offered as example to North Africa and Egypt as a model of how to deal with such complex social capital. Although Indonesia has had her share of problems in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis and the fall of the Suharto regime, the vigor of social narrative between the different ethnic races and different religions, in a country where 88 percent are Muslims, is very impressive indeed.

Time for civil society to wake up and for greater efforts to rebuild social capital. 

By Andrew Sheng

Andrew Sheng is an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and University of Malaya. He was formerly chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission, Hong Kong. ― Ed.

(Asia News Network)
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