Capacity building, social capital and empowerment

Capacity building is, of course, only meaningful when it refers to what it is planned to build capacity in. Here it is used to refer to building the capacity of those many individuals in agencies and communities that directly or indirectly take the lead in iniating and supporting the many social process strands that support a sustainably learning society. Social learning and empowerment are based on each other. Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.

The contemporary view of capacity-building goes beyond the conventional perception of training. The central concerns of environmental management and community building – to manage change, to resolve conflict, to manage institutional pluralism, to enhance coordination, to foster communication, and to ensure that data and information are shared – require a broad and holistic view of capacity development. This definition covers both institutional and community-based capacity-building.

One of the key requirements in this regard for capacity building is to recognise that the social whole is more than the sum of its individual components. People form social systems which provide for a range of needs not met through market transactions – households, communities of interest, locality and neighbourhoods create networks of mutual obligation, care, concern, interest and even conflict (access to other points of view). In the development and organizational learning literature these networks, norms and trust which facilitate co-operation for mutual benefit are referred to as ‘social capital’. Social capital can be thought of as the framework that supports the process of learning through interaction, and requires the formation of networking paths that are both horizontal (across agencies and sectors) and vertical (agencies to communities to individuals). The quality of the social processes and relationships within which learning interactions take place is especially influential on the quality of the learning outcomes in collaborative approaches. Taken one step further, this suggests that social capital plays an important role in fostering the social networks and information exchange needed to achieve collective action – and sustaining a social and institutional learning environment which is ready to adapt and change.

If we assume that in the short term, there will be no major shifts in financial resources to the environmental or development sectors, nor will current policies be massively altered to change the status quo, then we need strategies for other ways of empowering people and changing current practices. The use of approaches to improve social capital to better strengthen and harness many existing aspects of social relationships in environment and development may work to foster constructive change. More information on how well we can measure and improve our approaches to social capital building can be found on the page participatory monitoring and evaluation. See also the growing role of the Internet for more on how international communication technologies can play a role in building social capital if they are used to strengthen and add to existing social networks. More specific material related to capacity-building in respect of involving people and managing information can also be found on other pages from the Learning for Sustainability (LfS) main site index.


Empowerment: What is it?
This Journal of Extension paper by Nanette Page and Cheryl Czuba helps us see empowerment as a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives. It is a process that fosters power in people for use in their own lives, their communities, and in their society by acting on issues that they define as important.

Social capital

Assist Social Capital
This Scottish-based organisation provides a range of social capital facilitation services. It is a social enterprise that promotes best practice in social capital. By providing opportunities for people to learn more about it we facilitate the process of applying social capital in practice to improve the quality of life in our communities. They manage a web portal, information database, e-bulletin and support networking events. A number of useful documents can be accessed from their site.

Social capital: A tool for public policy
This 2005 study by the Canadian government Policy Research Initiative (PRI) concludes that government action could be more effective if, in developing relevant programs and initiatives, the role of social capital were taken into account more systematically. This summary report shows which areas of policy lend themselves to improvement by the development of social capital, and the types of approaches that could be used to achieve this.

Measuring social capital in five communities in NSW
This paper by Paul Bullen & Jenny Onyx looks at what social capital is, what it is made up of, and how it can be used in practical terms.