Science - December 1, 2005

Social capital does not always help

There’s not much point having lots of friends and family if you are broke. For if you have nothing, you also have nothing to give away. This was the case in Bangladesh after the 1998 floods, according to research done by Dr Ahmed Ali.

Social capital is sometimes extolled by sociologists as the social lubricant to soften the effects of poverty. In other words, people with an extensive network of friends and family are less vulnerable because they can call on others for help, or they will be given food for free. This is regarded as a mechanism for increasing food security in poor countries. And social capital can help with financial capital, for example because people can borrow money without collateral as they have a relationship of trust with the moneylender.

But social capital is only valuable if there are indeed resources and money to distribute, according to research that Ahmed Ali did in Bangladesh. He examined the organisation of families and their networks, and listened to the life stories of men and women. Bangladesh was hit by big floods in 1998. Ali compared the situation before the flood with how things were afterwards. It emerged that after the flood everyone was so destitute that even relying on the kindliness of friends was not an option, simply because nobody had anything left to give away.

He also observed that social capital is not equally distributed among men and women. The position of women has improved somewhat in recent years, but women remain more vulnerable than men, says Ali. Women and girls have more education than previously and they now also consume more. But women are still discriminated against on the labour market. If they manage to find a job, they are paid less.

The government and civic organisations are trying to strengthen the position of women by giving them micro credit. But because relations within the family are still unequal, this does not always lead to the desired effect. Men ask wives to borrow money from an NGO, use the money themselves, but then leave repaying the debt up to the woman, who then gets into problems. / JT

Dr Ahmed Ali received his PhD on 21 November. His supervisor was Professor Anke Niehof, chair of Sociology of Consumers and Households.