Social Capital in the Sudan

Bashir A. Abdelgayoum Ali

Social capital has become an area of interest for a wide range of actors including government institutions, UN agencies, think tank groups, donors and community development practitioners. Social capital is believed to have the potential to positively contribute to outcomes in diverse areas of social concern such as health, community development, safety and education, and for these reasons social capital has captured the interest of policy makers, social analysts and researchers.
There are many definitions to the concept of social capital. Different words such as social energy, community spirit, social bonds, trust, community networks, extended friendships, community life, social resources, informal and formal networks, social glue and good neighbourliness are used to define the concept (Office for National Statistics 2001). Fukuyama (2005: 89) defines social capital as:
Social capital is a tangible form and example of an informal norm that promotes cooperation between two or more persons. Social capital can include from the norm of mutual relationship between two friends to complex teachings such as Christianity or Confucianism that are expressed in detail. These norms should be realized objectively in actual relationships of human beings. Regarding this definition, trust, networks, civil society and the like that are associated with social capital, all are by-product of this phenomena that are developed in result of social capital but do not constitute the social capital itself.
In Fukuyama’s definition norms, mutual relationships and networking are at the heart of social capital. His definition could be applied to marginalised and poor people such as refugees and internally displaced persons who developed mutual relationships to survive.
The internal social and cultural coherence of society, the norms and values that govern interactions among people and the institutions in which they are embedded. Social capital is the glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human wellbeing. Without social capital, society at large will collapse, and today’s world presents some very sad examples of this.
To back his definition Grootaert (1998) gave two examples on social capital. The first example was from Somalia where, after the 1991 fall of Somalia’s government, civil disorder triumphed and incomes declined throughout most of the country. However, the port city of Boosaaso was an exception. The warlord of Boosaaso managed to organise a security force and a council of clan elders with support from local people. This helped to promote trade and to generate income for the locals (Buckley 1996, cited in Grootaert 1998). The second example was from Gujarat, India where the violent confrontations between local people and government officials on how forests should be managed led to economic stagnation. To de-escalate violence, local communities were mobilized and joint forest management was established. Such investment in social capital increased land productivity as well as incomes for local people (Pathan et al 1993, cited in Grootaert 1998). Both examples display an aspect of social capital and its contribution to economic growth.
Social capital is also seen as a community-level attribute, and consists of the existence of community networks; local identity and a sense of belonging and solidarity with other community members; and norms of trust and mutual support (Putnam 1993; cited in Morrow 2004: 27). These social capital assets can be applied when researching disadvantaged populations such as the displaced.
However, feminists criticise social capital theories that focus on networks and relationships and ignore gender roles and relations (Daliri & Shahanavaz 2011: 205). Foucault (1982: 224, cited in Anucha et al 2006: 1) argues that conventional definitions of social capital do not challenge power relations which are rooted in the system of social networking. Moreover, patriarchal institutions that exist in many societies may limits women’s social capital .To overcome this gender bias in the social capital analysis many feminists have tried to look at how women express their creativity, resourcefulness and participation in their communities.
Data collected by informal observation showed interesting women’s social behaviour at the two camps, where women tended to gather, without men, in tajammu’at (groups) in front of their houses/huts to do some household/reproductive activities such as cooking together, sharing meals, doing laundry or playing with their children. Nevertheless, the work of these tajammu’at/groups is not documented. It does not appear on either government or NGO reports. These tajammu’at as informal networks/groups are central to the concept of social capital which can be defined as the personal relationships which are accumulated when people interact with each other in neighborhoods in a wide range of informal meeting places.
To explore these tajammu’at I asked my female respondents about the nature of these tajammu’at and the help they got from them. Women’s responses to the questions showed that these tajammu’at offered a wide range of assistance to women, which I will discuss below.
In-depth interview data revealed that newcomers to the camps got help from these groups to settle down and to get used to life in the camps before starting to look for new livelihood strategies. This had been supported by a narrative from Abok who had recently arrived in Al-Salam camp, fleeing the fighting in Kapoita, Southern Sudan:
When I came here I did not know what to do. I could not tell where was the direction of the East or the West, nor how to fetch water or firewood. I did not have any food or enough money. I only had 500 Pounds [about 2 USD], which I used to buy bread for the children. I found women cooking together, chatting and laughing then I felt mabsuta [happy], women still laughed in this camp, and they must have got something to make them happy so I decided to go and see. Later I joined the group and became part of it.1
In this narrative there seems to be an informal welcoming approach to those who just arrived at the camps, probably fleeing war and violence. This welcome approach gave the new comers a sense of belonging and a sense of place by getting directions to the neighbourhood crucial places such as the market, water sources and churches. New comers were also made aware about the safety of the camp. For instance, what part of the camp was safer and which was not and to avoid, in particular when it was dark.2
To heal the pain of women victims of war, famine and drought, 14% of my respondents (fourteen women) pointed out that the gatherings had offered them comfort and eased their stress. This was done in an informal, supportive and friendly way, without help from the NGOs or the government. This kind of help was offered to all displaced women, irrespective of their place of origin or tribe. Women trusted each other and talked about their traumatic experiences, their experiences of rape, and sexual and domestic violence. They told each other what they could not tell their husbands.
Trust is a great value associated with social capital as pointed out in Fukuyama’s definition of social capital mentioned above. It might be relevant to mention the experience of Colombian women flower growers who were able to resist sexual violence and to negotiate a solution with their husbands by relying on the social capital they developed by working together and trusting each other (Tripp 1992; cited in Bruegel 2005: 10).
One of the most significant impacts of these tajammu’at, as 8% of my respondents (eight women) indicated, lay in their potential and capacity to cater for displaced women who belonged to different ethnic groups, had different experiences in terms of displacement, needs, and aspirations. In this regard, and in the wider context of conflict resolution, it could be argued that these tajammu’at had helped women from different tribes to work together and to empower each other, thus scaling down possible tensions over scarce resources, impoverishment and marginalisation in displaced person’s camps (Osman 2001: 11). Furthermore, it seemed that these tajammu’at had the potential to develop a grass roots reconciliation mechanism. For example, some women neighbours may have had misunderstandings or conflicts over neighbourhood issues, such as cleaning and dumping of garbage. When that happened, those who were part of the conflicts would bring the issue to women at the tajammu’at who would do their best to resolve the problem.

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