Thursday, August 2, 2007

Social capital, Law and Democracy

By Dr Hari Bansha Dulal and Stefano Foa

Violence breeds violence. In Nepal, the seeds of violence were sown in February 1996 when CPN (Maoist) carried out simultaneous raids on government offices, police posts, and private businesses. Since then, such violent behavior has become ingrained in the Nepali society. What was started by the Maoist insurgents has now sprouted across several groups, some with separatist agendas, and others simply taking advantage of the breakdown in the rule of law to make a fast buck.

Like leaders in many developing countries, the Nepali political elite has spent this time selling dreams of imminent prosperity to a largely illiterate Nepali populace, while ignoring the mounting security dilemma.

While lawlessness continues, politicians talk as if a peaceful democratic transition can be taken for granted. But it cannot. The fact is that most countries fail during their first attempt to establish democracy. This is just as true in Europe - where fledgling democracies collapsed in France, Italy, Germany and Spain - as it has been, since the 1950s, in wave after wave of decolonized nations in Africa and the Middle East. The few developing nations, such as India or Botswana, that have maintained some degree of democratic continuity from the start, are the exceptions and not the rule.

Why do some regimes undergo successful transition, while others collapse into anarchy and despotism - and what lessons can this yield for Nepal?

During periods of democratic transition, politicians tend to overstate their positive impact in the short-term, while underestimating or ignoring the longer-term negative consequences that their actions - or inactions - can have.

First among these is the effect that the failure to combat lawlessness and instability has in undermining a country's stock of 'social' capital - that is, the relations of inter-group solidarity and cohesion which allow negotiation, compromise, and agreement between opposing factions. In Nepal, the consequence of the failure to stem the vortex of violence and lawlessness is that the country is fragmenting into an archipelago of competing power factions, and unless these centrifugal forces are contained, the country will drift further and further from a social compact.
Second, violence and insecurity also erode other forms of social capital which are essential for making democracy work. Chief among these is the maintenance of a healthy civil society, in the form of the newspapers, professional associations, women's groups, and community forums. Such associations are essential in enabling citizens are able to formulate their interests, debate policy, and place pressure on local representatives to deliver better services and more accountable governance.

Robert Putnam's classic 1993 study on civic involvement in Italy showed that such networks are critical in ensuring effective local governance and economic development, and more recently, further studies by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel have confirmed this view. Across the world, they find that countries which in the early 1990s began their democratization process with a civic culture of independence and citizen activism have had a greater success in maintaining effective and accountable institutions.

On the other hand, where civil society has been passive or cowed, the potential for regression toward despotic and unaccountable rule is strong. In Nepal, widespread violence and intimidation are producing exactly this result, as citizens retreat behind closed doors and the possibility of a public space is being eroded.

Unfortunately, the Maoists do not want a healthy civil society, as they know that independent groups based upon horizontal association would be a threat to the kind of authoritarian regime they envisage. Were farmers, minorities, tradesmen, and professionals able independently to articulate their interests and engage through the democratic process, the chances of garnering support for a universal proletarian state would become slim.

Yet, the longer the lawlessness persists, the more difficult will it become to restore a culture of fairness and respect for the law. Not long ago, Nepal was known as a peaceful land, widely touted as Switzerland of Asia. Today, this no longer rings true. According to data from the World Health Organization, by 2002 the homicide rate in Nepal had already reached 15 per 100,000 - twice the rate in Bangladesh, three times the rate in India, and five times that of China. If deaths from conflict were also included, the figure would rise to almost 20 per 100,000. This not only makes Nepal among the most violent societies in Asia, but among the most dangerous in the entire world.

Were order restored now, the country could return somewhat to the safety and security of bygone years, but the longer the anarchy continues, the more difficult will such a recovery become. An alarming precedent in this regard has already been set by Cambodia, a country whose social fabric has since the 1970s been torn asunder by insurgency and political stagnation. Their conflict has left families estranged, villages uprooted, and orphans on the streets. In Cambodia today, the Maoists may be gone and a veneer of political stability may have been restored. Yet violence and criminality have become engrained within the culture. Weapons and explosives are widely available, and at 17 per 100,000 this once peaceful land has among the highest homicide rates in Asia.

Nepal is a country once rich in bonds of trust, solidarity, and mutual support. These are now being eroded. If the land is to achieve both development and democracy, it cannot wait for solutions to arrive. Just like economic capital, 'social capital' is a resource that takes centuries to accumulate, but only a decade to destroy. The loss can be stopped now, but critical toward doing so is the restoration of the rule of law. Once protection is provided to all groups in society, demands for separatism will wane. Once violations of life and liberty are reprimanded, the culture of impunity will disappear. Once citizens are able to associate freely and without fear of intimidation, the prospect of a healthy civic life will be restored. But action must be taken now. The longer the social fabric is worn away, the more difficult will it be to sew together again.

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