Social capital

Tribalism and Corruption: The Dark Side of Social Capital

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on December 12, 2016

Social capital can be defined as the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. The positive aspects of social capital are selflessness, generosity and compassion. In countries that are not social market economies with a robust government funded security net, social capital is a crucial means through which the vulnerable are supported to have a better quality of life. We see this in Africa everyday: supporting friends and family with school fees; fundraising for the medical care of others or providing monthly stipends for unemployed loved ones. Social capital is a crucial part of the fabric of African communities where many still feel a sense of responsibility for others. Indeed, there is a theoretical possibility that the introduction of social market economies in Africa may lead to an erosion of this social capital.

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However, there is a dark side to social capital; a side that enables cronyism, tribalism and corruption. A side where oneself and a select group of associates or beneficiaries have priority over collective well-being. The self, not the other is the core of negative social capitalism; a core where the self and a limited circle are the intended beneficiaries of generosity, often at the cost of the welfare of others.

Kenya’s best known expressions of negative social capitalism are tribalism and corruption. In the case of tribalism, the tribe to which the self belongs is deemed as rightfully superior to the tribe of the other. Kenyans tend to (silently) condone tribalism as long the tribe of the self is benefitting from unearned favours and undue favouritism. Uproar only ensues when the tribe of the other is accruing the benefits.  This has resulted in a lack of commitment to end tribalism in in the country. Kenyans are happy to benefit from this beast when it’s their turn to eat and only refer to the need to adhere to principles of justice and fairness when it is not their tribe benefitting from cronyism. Kenyans will bemoan tribalism from the tribes of the other but fervently defend individuals who are conduits of tribalism in the tribe of the self. As a result this version of negative social capital expands as the circle of beneficiaries contracts and does not extend beyond tribe.

A worrying, emerging reality in the context of devolution, is that negative social capital is being expressed as the devolution of tribalism. Speaking to county officials has made it clear that at county level, the circle of beneficiaries of Kenyans is narrowing from tribe to clan. Kenyans are keeping an eye on how positions at county level are divided among clans. Discontent arises if one clan is seen to be benefitting from county appointments more than others. This is a worrying form of self-obsession because it is rooted in a sentiment of exclusion not inclusion.

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Corruption is an interesting phenomenon because it is the conduit through which negative social capital is expressed. Corruption is the means through which cronyism and tribalism are brought to life. What is fascinating is that those engaging in corruption feel justified in engaging in it because they have beneficiaries who rely on them, who are better off due to their pilfering. Their children go to better schools, their parents live in better houses and their spouses drive better cars. Thus, in the warped world of negative social capital, the individual engaging in corruption feels justified in their embezzlement. And the irony is that what should be the positive aspects of social capital, caring for others outside the self, emboldens corruption and thus what ought to be positive is turned into an ogre that pillages the other to benefit the self.

Tribalism and corruption cripple the ability of the country to work towards a common goal rooted in an incentive to work hard. Tribalism and corruption allow individuals to reap where they did not sow. How then can a country truly develop if honesty, diligence and hard work are not rewarded?

Anzetse Were is a development economist;

The welfare conundrum

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 28, 2016

As African economies continue to grow and become richer than they have been in modern history, the question of government providing social security or welfare nets for the especially poor and marginalised becomes important. Poverty levels are still dire on the continent; the number of Africans living in extreme poverty, defined as living on $1.25 or less a day, stood at 414 million people in 2010 or 48.5 percent of the African population according to the World Bank.

These high levels of problems pose several problems with regards to the continent’s development. The most obvious is that those living in extreme poverty also tend to be malnourished and are unable to access and afford medical care, education as well as basics such as water and adequate shelter. As a result not only are they unable to live productive and dignified lives, their circumstances make it difficult them to be productive members of society as they are saddled with chronic, debilitating (but often treatable) illnesses, poor living conditions, illiteracy and the lack of opportunity to improve their lot. Clearly those living in extreme poverty need far more support than they are currently getting and frankly the issue of providing more support to this demographic group is one that ought to be front and centre for African governments not only because it is the right thing to do, but is also the smart thing to do. (source:

The consequence of on-going, chronic poverty on the continent creates an additional dynamic; very high levels of dependency on the middle class African. Ask any African in the middle class and I can assure you they will tell you they support friends or family members in paying schools fees, medical bills, funeral costs and monthly stipends for day to day living. Even those who are not among the extreme poor, those who have even attained university degrees for example, are often unemployed and the high levels of unemployment means that otherwise able and capable Africans are relegated to relying on monthly stipends from friends and families. These high levels of poverty and dependency translate into low lived disposable income and savings on the continent. Middle class Africans cannot and do not save sufficiently because they ARE the social security net. They are the unemployment bureau. As a result many Africans do not save adequately which negatively informs economic growth.

There is however, an interesting consequence to Africans relying on each other to the extent on which they do. It creates, amplifies and spreads social capital. Social capital, which can be defined as the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society that often enable society to function more effectively than it otherwise would, is abundant in Africa. The extent to which Africans have to trust friends and family, the levels of generosity in many Africans who give to friends and family even though they too are struggling, is precious social capital. Would Africa lose this social capital if government stepped in with a robust welfare net? Would social capital be eroded where, instead of giving your cousin USD 100 to get through the month, you told him to go and stand in line at the unemployment bureau? Would the generosity of buying your elderly aunt a bale of rice every month disappear if she went to an impersonal government agency and got food stamps instead?


In fact it is an interesting question to ponder as to the extent to which government funded welfare nets contributed to the erosion of social capital in developed economies. Of course there are cultural realities that have led to more individualistic societies in developed economies but perhaps impersonal government agencies offering social services means there is no real need for citizens to take care of distant relatives and friends.

I am not suggesting that African governments use such theorising to fail to provide welfare services for their citizens; it is their duty to do so. But the conundrum for Africa will be how to retain high levels of social capital on the continent even if or when governments step in with robust welfare services.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;