Social Scientist. v 29, no. 342-343 (Nov-Dec 2001) p. 25.


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JOHN HARRISS"

Public Action and the Dialectics of Decentralisation:

Against the myth of social capital as 'the missing link in development9

In the contemporary discourse on development in international agencies, notably the World Bank, there is a good deal of emphasis upon the virtues of 'participation5, sometimes taken as implying also 'empowerment5, and upon 'decentralisation9, which is seen either as the key means of realising participation or sometimes as being more or less equivalent to it. These three buzz-words are used in close alliance with two others: 'civil society5, and 'social capital9. The first of these is taken to mean that sphere of organised social life (though excluding political organisations, especially political parties) which lies outside the state on the one hand, and ascriptive forms of social organisation such as the family and kinship groups on the other (though some definitions of 'civil society9 would have it as including these forms of human association as well). The second, social capital, refers to 'social networks, norms and trust9 which are conducive to the creation of a 'vibrant9 or 'robust9 civil society because they facilitate the solving of problems of collective action; but the idea is commonly equated, in the international development agencies, with 'voluntary local association9. Indeed, in one World Bank paper it is argued that social capital, in this specific sense, constitutes 'the missing link in development9.

The basic idea is that it is through 'participation9 in 'voluntary local associations9 people are 'empowered9, in 'civil society9. A vibrant civil society, which implies the presence of a strong sense of civic and community responsibility amongst people, acts both as a vital check upon the activities and the agencies of the state, and as a kind of a conduit between the people and the government. A strong civil society

* Professor, London School of Economics &c Politics, London

Social Scientist, Vol. 29, Nos. 11-12, Nov. - Dec. 2001



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