By Christopher Guta, PhD:
I have been discussing in this column the issue of trust and how it is related to development. I have already attended to two of preconditions of trust and if you missed the entry, email me for a copy. First is the need to ensure that our institutions (e.g. police, judiciary, civil service, etc) are efficient and effective. Institutions underpin economic activities by laying rules that guide behaviour. The second precondition is inequality. The point being that, where inequality is high, trust is compromised – especially if there are perceptions that economic opportunities are not accessed from a level playing field. Today, I will discuss the third pre-condition – social distance.
Social distance, as discussed in the social sciences, is a measure of social separation between individuals and groups caused by perceived or real differences between groups of people classified according to well-known social categories.The degree of separation between individuals and groups is expressed or indicated by the extent to which there is mutual sympathy and affection. Indeed, it is not uncommon for individuals and groups with short social distance to interact frequently and for longer periods they are socially close and, thus, have positive attitudes and feelings of each other.
In reference to social distance, social categories can take the form of age, gender and race. In the case of race, the general term that has, in history, been negatively exploited is ethnicity. The Jews suffered from the negative attitudes and feelings of Nazi Germany while the Tutsis suffered at the hands of the Hutus in Rwanda. Apartheid in South Africa was, in fact, a case of social distance between races that governed social and economic relations until Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela collaborated to, at least in principle, end it.
The reason social distance is a precondition for trustis that people are more trustworthy of those they are close to. They can, for example, favour them in business transactions as my neighbor, who has a hardware stall in Blantyre vendor’s marke,t alerted me to the fact that certain ethnic groups there are preferred when accessing public sector loans. In fact, and this is from a social capital perspective, it is not by accident that the accepted wisdom is that social-economic opportunities are enhanced where both intra-community (Jew to Jew or Yao to Yao) and extra-community (Jew to Arab or Yao to Chewa) social ties are strong. What this is saying is that if trust is to flow like a river in Malawi, policies that bind us together as a people are instrumental. I, thus, salute the late Micheal Sauka who, in creating the lyrics for our National Anthem, juxtaposed our three enemies: hunger, disease envy with the need for unity as an antidote to fear. I, therefore, wonder whether the occasions that are organised to bring together people of one ethnic group to celebrate their cultural or linguistic identity are taking Malawi in the right direction regarding the effect of social distance on trust.
What other actions then can Malawi take to benefit from the positive effects of social distance on trust? At the political leadership level, our first Ngwazi used to say: No Tumbuka, no Yao, no Lhomwe and no Sena; just Malawians. Ethnic fractionalisation is an enemy of social distance and trust. At the economic planning level, investing in infrastructure that brings people and groups of people closer is essential. Two forms of infrastructure are particularly linked to social distance and trust as factors of development.
First are roads and, can I say, rail also?The total distance of paved and rail roads has been found to distinguish countries according to their level of development. I, therefore, cannot wait for the Limbe to Beira rail line to be usable once again! I cannot wait for the earth road from Chitipa Boma to Kameme and beyond, which the Minister of Transport and Public Works visited recently, to be bituminised.
The second form of infrastructure positively associated with social distance is information and communication technologies. How true! WhatsApp is bringing people close together regardless of physical distance. I cannot, therefore, wait for the time when prices for accessing the internet in Malawi come down from their high level relative to our GDP per capita. Last month, I attended the High Level Conference on Public Private Partnership where I learnt that while the wholesale prices for internet access have come down in Malawi, the retail rates have not responded likewise. I cannot wait for this to happen. It will help Malawi increase the number of people who have access to internet from 13.8 per 100 inhabitants recorded in the 2018 International Telecommunications Union Report. The Africa-wide and worldwide ratios are 22.1 and 48.6 per 100 inhabitants respectively.
Our work regarding development is cut out. Let’s ‘Just Do It’ as Nike would say.
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