High on social capital

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With the Legatum Report ranking India fifth in the world in terms of ‘social capital’, it’s time we capitalised on our age-old but new-found strengths through which the world now views us: Our freedom, our democracy, our cultural values and the importance we place on family bonding

Last month I attended an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conference on measuring the Progress of Societies held in Busan, a seaside industrial city in South Korea. Closer to Japan than to Seoul, Busan’s skyscrapers, limousines, malls and women appeared newer and glitzier than in the white capitals of Europe.

It then came as a shock to find that knowledge of spoken and written English or any Western language was non-existent in such an apparently westernised country. Be it the airport, the hotel lobby, inside posh shops, restaurants or banks, including at the global conference that I was attending, locals could not communicate except in Korean. Even the hotel concierge in the magnificent lobby of a five-star hotel could not differentiate between ‘near’ and ‘far’ ‘upstairs’ or ‘downstairs’. Even the last resort, sign language, proved to be futile. But what was even more remarkable was that it made no difference to Korean self-assurance.

And why should it? Today Korea takes pride in being the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 15th largest in the world. As one of the largest exporters of electronics, automobiles, ships, petrochemicals, and robotics, the country’s current obsession is the concept of Green Growth, largely seen as an opportunity to propel new technology and increase employment.

Until the mid-sixties Korea ranked well below India, with nothing to show after being devastated by decades of war, a pitiable agrarian economy. With nationalist determination the country steadfastly pursued family planning, education, and extended opportunities to girls and women to work. Thereby Korea succeeded in pushing up the age of marriage and successfully reducing the fertility rate from six children per woman in the early 1960s to 2.2 children within 20 years. Today virtually the entire adult population, both men and women are literate and Korea’s fertility level is among the lowest in the world. On all counts the progress was palpable and truly impressive.

Ironically, the subject of the conference that I was attending was measuring the progress of the societies. The keynote speaker was Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, recently better-known as the Chairman of the Sarkozy’s — Stiglitz Commission notable for arguing that well-being and quality of life were from a people’s perspective more central to progress than GDP, which only measured production.

The argument is in fact an extension of what Harvard Professor Robert Putnam had put forward in his famous book Bowling Alone. Putnam had given weight to connectedness with family, friends, neighbours and co-workers as a more perceptive measure of understanding civic engagement. Indicators like political equality, solidarity, trust, tolerance and a strong associational life he held were superior as measures of social capital and progress. As a member of the Stiglitz Commission, his ideas found place in the Report released on September 14 this year where the limitations of GDP were explained with reasons for developing a new set of metrics to evaluate human welfare.

Initially, all this talk appeared airy fairy to someone like me, immersed for decades in comparing measurements of poverty and human deprivation. It came as a surprise therefore when Legatum, a London-based Policy research institution tabled a glossy publication at the conference, ranking India fifth in the world in terms of ‘social capital’. On this index, India ranked below New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden, and Australia in that order, but above 100 other countries which was surprisingly good news.

And it was not as though India had fared well only on that one indicator. The Legatum report ranked India at a respectable 45th position out of 104 countries that represented 90 per cent of the world’s population. India performed reasonably well on ‘entrepreneurship and innovation’, ‘democratic institutions’ as well as on ‘personal freedom’. Even in terms of ‘governance’ we retained an ‘average’ rating, but predictably ranked low on indicators like education, health, safety and security.

I learnt three lessons from my visit to Busan and the OECD conference. First, knowledge of English or an international language is not essential, even necessary, to achieve economic prowess. Second, a country can never grow equitably unless it places sustained emphasis on family planning and gives opportunities to women to work and earn. Third, the most contented nations in the world are not necessarily those that have a high GDP, but those that additionally have strong social networks, that are trustworthy and supportive. Family, friends, social organisations and support systems have a strong bearing on well-being and quality of life and in the eyes of the world India is far ahead of most other countries.

It is time India capitalised on its age-old but new-found strengths through which the world now views us — our freedom, our democracy, our cultural values, our social traditions and the importance Indians place on social connectedness and family bonding. Indeed this should become the new mantra for tourism, for image-building and preserving what we already have in abundance. The Legatum Report has shown the way but much needs to be done to earn the respect we seek.


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