Bridging Social Capital

Throughout Kibera today, white hand-painted messages of “No more violence” and “Peace” on doors, walls and storefronts mark the emergence of a new sense of optimism in Kenya. With a peace agreement and coalition government in place, people are embracing a return to normal daily life.  But one of the greatest challenges still lies ahead: how to reunite a country that has been fractured along ethnic, political, and economic lines.

Robert Putnam defines 2 kinds of social capital: Bonding social capital links you to people similar to you, while bridging social capital connects you to people who are different (religion, race, generation). “For a modern and diverse democratic society, bridging social capital is important because, if you have a society that has tons of bonding but no bridging, you have a society that looks like Beirut or Baghdad,” says Putnam.

How do you develop bridging social capital in communities that have become highly segregated and tense? How do you restore trust in areas where neighbors turned on each other just four months ago?

Grassroots initiatives in Kenya have started the effort (most recently I heard of a group called Concerned Citizens for Peace). But ideally this effort will permeate all areas of society — peoples’ jobs, schools, housing, recreation — and be combined with efforts to reduce economic inequality in the country.  I’m reminded of a fellows’ brainstorm session with Jawad in the fall on building community at Saiban, when we used this list of 150 ways to build social capital — and I reflect on how our conversation relates to the big picture of re-untiting Kenya. For now, I have many more questions than answers –but I’m listening and learning each day, and your ideas are welcome!




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