This is the second post in a series of six in which Michael Woolcock, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, discusses critical ideas within the field of Social Development.There is a Nguni-Bantu phrase, “I am because we are” which arises from the Ubuntu philosophy of community. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee translated it in her TED Talk as “I am what I am because of who we all are.” At its most basic understanding, Ubuntu means “human kindness toward others,” but its meaning is much greater, expressing ideas of connection and community. It is a concept known to cultures around the world. The Maori of New Zealand say “We all in the same boat”, and the North American Sioux tribe believes that, “With all things and in all things, we are relatives.” Globally, cultures around the world know and use the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”.
Modern philosophers have taken these axioms and developed social science research to explore them. Social capital refers to the interpersonal interactions we all participate in to create economic and cultural resources. When social capital is functioning well, social relations are marked by reciprocity, trust and cooperation and individuals can produce goods and services not just for themselves, but for the common good. Relatedly, social cohesion describes the degree to which a society works toward the wellbeing of all its members, supports inclusive practices, and allows individuals to work for upward mobility.
These theories are essential to international development because, as Michael Woolcock points out, “Development changes who people interact with, and the terms with which people interact.” Whether you think of these ideas as Ubuntu or social capital, they encompass the way in which people deal with power structures, like the state, and with other people who are not like them.