For the latest thinking about the international financial system, monetary policy, economic development, poverty reduction, and other critical issues, subscribe to Finance & Development (F&D). This lively quarterly magazine brings you in-depth analyses of these and other subjects by the IMF’s own staff as well as by prominent international experts. Articles are written for lay readers who want to enrich their understanding of the workings of the global economy and the policies and activities of the IMF.


For the latest thinking about the international financial system, monetary policy, economic development, poverty reduction, and other critical issues, subscribe to Finance & Development (F&D). This lively quarterly magazine brings you in-depth analyses of these and other subjects by the IMF’s own staff as well as by prominent international experts. Articles are written for lay readers who want to enrich their understanding of the workings of the global economy and the policies and activities of the IMF.

THE SOCIAL components of sustainability are no less important than the economic and technical ones. “Putting people first” in projects improves social organization and increases social capital.

The case for environmentally sustainable development is usually argued in economic and technical-ecological terms. As has happened in other areas, many are tempted to think that if they can “get the economics right,” everything else will fall into place. Soothing as this econo-mythical invocation may be, it is nonetheless one-sided. The social components of sustainability are no less important Indeed, failure to recognize the determinant role of the “social actors” has doomed many programs trying to induce development.

The environment is at risk not from some extraterrestrial enemies, but from human beings, including both local and distant resource users. Thus, the call for “putting people first” in policies and investment programs for inducing development, or for assistance in spontaneous development, is not a radical call: it is a realistic one. It simply means recognizing the centrality of the social actors and their institutions in sustainable development. Sustainability must be “socially constructed”—that is, arrangements of a social and economic nature must be made purposively. This is why building sustain ability must be approached as a threefold task—social, economic, and ecological—simultaneously.

A sociologist’s “tools”

What does the sociological perspective add to the arsenal of tools for achieving sustainable development? Two sets of elements, at least. First, it provides a set of concepts that help explain social action, the relationships among people, their complex forms of social organization, their institutionalized arrangements, and the culture, motives, stimuli, and values that regulate their behavior vis-a-vis each other and natural resources. Second, it offers a set of social techniques apt to prompt coordinated social action, inhibit detrimental behavior, foster association, craft alternative social arrangements, and help develop social capital.

Social organization. Incorporating new elements of social and institutional organization into development means much more than reciting empty slogans about “beneficiary participation.” It demands competent social analysis and creative social engineering work—most important, figuring out which building blocks make up a social arrangement conducive to enduring development. The building blocks of social organization typically include the social actors themselves; the social contract governing relationships (including conflicts) among local users and remote stakeholders; the prevailing cultural systems of resource entitlements—ownership, usufruct, or custodianship; authority systems and enforcement mechanisms; an infinite range of producers’ organizations, from family based systems or water users’ associations to large corporate enterprises; labor-exchange networks; and value and belief systems.

If identified and known, these building blocks can be translated and articulated into powerful levers for action-oriented programs; but if they are ignored, they can wreck expensive programs and curtail sustainability (see box). This was confirmed once again by a study that examined whether 25 Bank- financed projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America demonstrated sustainability several years after their completion. Disappointingly, the study found that over half of them (13 projects) had left no lasting developmental impact 6–10 years after completion and had failed to produce the expected flow of benefits. Among the basic causes of nonsustainability were the neglect of sociological factors in project design and the lack of supportive institutions and grassroots participation. In sum, the “social scaffolding” of sustainability was missing. Conversely, all the projects that proved to be sustainable undertook from the outset purposive institution building. The study demonstrates why sociological knowledge, as well as economic and ecological expertise, is needed to promote sustainability in investment programs.

Social techniques. Program designers searching for increased sustainability often are not aware of the vast repertories of social management “tools” and cultural levers that can be marshalled to mobilize social energy and coordinated action under induced development programs. These tools range from creating public awareness to investing in human capital; from simple consultations to fostering participatory comanagement; from incentive systems to institutional controls; from relying on traditions to changing old practices and introducing innovations; from empowerment to increasing social cohesion; and from economically motivating individuals’ behavior to harnessing the power of solidarity, trust, self- organization, and group-embraced values.

These tools can also be combined to change existing social patterns and promote a culture of resource protection and enhancement. In social forestry projects, for instance, planners have several strategic options for tree planting programs: community-centered approaches, household-centered approaches, or small group-centered approaches. The social—not only the technical—strategy must be chosen from the outset, and the goal should always be to build or strengthen the institutional arrangements. When this prescription is not followed, as has happened in many village woodlot schemes designed to provide wood for fuel and to stem deforestation, projects and investments perish without trace. In India, for example, because these “community wood- lots” were conceived without a sufficient understanding of how stratified the villages were, few people showed up to plant trees on a “common” plot, but many came to collect wood; in the end, the “village” woodlots became government woodlots, wasting money and goodwill.

Dancing societies or labor exchanges?

The cultural map of Tanzania’s Sukumaland region is dotted with Malika ga Mbina, the “secret dancing societies.” To the socially untrained eye, they remain either invisible or seem to be irrelevant for development endeavors. But to the socially perceptive eye, the Malika ga Mbina appear for what they really are: stable, territorially ramified, robust, and responsive networks of labor exchange and mutual help—not just groups that perform dances at rituals and feasts.

These groups embody an adaptive strategy to labor scarcity—they help meet the seasonal peak labor demands of individual farms at low costs. A sophisticated yet inconspicuous form of social organization, they have leadership, rules and role structures, and welfare-relevant functions. They reach beyond primary kinship ties, link microsocial units across dispersed settlements, and efficiently relay mobilization signals to and from the membership through a flexible network of foot messengers.

By mediating labor demands collaboratively, this pattern of social organization shoulders the survival and sustainability of local farming systems under severe environmental constraints. Not harnessing their power would undermine the effectiveness of any resource development program.

What role should users play?

One of the crucial—and still controversial—questions is what role direct resource users should have in environmental management. Some policymakers reject the option of entrusting management responsibilities to the users, fearing that the resources will be abused; instead, they advocate state controls. Others plead against government intervention, focusing only on users or markets.

Evidence from many countries suggests that the statist solution, applied exclusively, promises more failure than success. But this does not imply that resource management should be fully entrusted to the users. Policymakers should determine whether the users are always able to exercise management. Taking such ability for granted in all cases is simply naive.

The issue, however, is not just the subjective capacity (or lack thereof) of one or another individual user, or of many users, to exercise management. Rather, the decisive factor is the presence or absence of forms of social organization structurally suited to manage the environment. Otherwise, the individual actions of multiple users may easily combine to produce an adverse system-level outcome. Often, atomistic sets of individual users need to be organized into interactive, institutionalized, and culturally cohesive groups, in order to acquire the ability to manage, trigger action, and enforce adequate rules, rights, and obligations.

Can traditional patterns of social organization in developing countries perform this role? Disappointment with proliferating, weak, and ineffective government agencies has led some development thinkers to advocate reviving traditional institutions. Under certain circumstances, this social technique can be sometimes effective. But this cannot become a universal, mainstream strategy, as forming institutional structures for environmental management at the local level requires more than simply reviving old institutions or traditions.

Building social capital

The practical alternative is to increase, diversify, multiply, and solidify the various forms of formal organization of rural communities. All over the developing world, the degree of formal organization in rural areas lags far behind that of urban populations, making rural areas especially vulnerable to strong exogenous forces and less able to mobilize their own social potential.

To counteract this vulnerability, development strategies can make a vast contribution by investing not only in the economic and technical prerequisites of sustainability but also in the formation of the socio-organizational structures for enduring development. Along these lines, two twin social concepts must inform development policies and actual programs: organizational intensity and organizational density.

The organizational intensity of a development program defines the level of emphasis, high or low, with which a program invests in social “software,” building organizational structures and institutional capacity. If used as a compass from the outset, this concept helps calibrate the investments toward explicit institutional goals and avoid techno- centric models that overlook the social context. Programs that emphasize the construction of an enduring institutional scaffolding for development can be called organizationally intense, while those neglecting it have a low organizational density and a smaller chance for long-term impact. Whenever such an intensive strategy succeeds, the society involved achieves a higher organizational density—an enhanced capability to sustain and propel development.

The concept of organizational density defines, in turn, the frequency and strength of various forms of social organizations that make up a given cultural fabric and the frequency with which individuals participate in multiple networks of socially organized activities. This density varies greatly, of course, by cultural setting and historic time. In the Republic of Korea and Thailand, for example, the organizational density of rural society is considerably higher than in India or Senegal.

An interesting parallel can be drawn between technology and organization. Donor agencies and governments alike have long pursued the transfer of advanced technology through technology-intensive—but not organization-intensive—aid strategies. However, technology, which is the physical capacity, cannot realize its full development potential unless it is embedded within adequate patterns of social organization—the social capital that sustains, uses, and maintains the technology. Thus, creating and strengthening adequate organizational structures, and involving the users of the technology, is no less important than the technology itself.

Indeed, if a high degree of social organization is itself a strategic resource for development, and if organization enhances the potential of individual actors by mobilizing them and maximizing synergy, then building up the levels of organization in society is an effective way to enhance the endurance and impact of development gains. This is why, when choices among investment program options are being made, it is legitimate to ask: “What is their degree of organizational intensity? How can this degree be enhanced to increase social sustainability?”

Creating organizations is equal to creating new social capital. Appropriate organizations are needed to enhance individuals’ social capacity for coordinated action and empower them as agents of development activities. Organizations accomplish this by defining mutual obligations and member rights, by creating sets of specialized roles internal to the organization, by establishing internal authority and accountability systems, by promoting norms and behavioral patterns regarded as useful to the group, and inhibiting those regarded as detrimental. Organizations incorporate important accumulations of human experience and knowledge, which is social capital. And new and growing social capital is indispensable for the social sustainability of development.

An innovative approach to water use: Pakistan

In the late 1970s, Pakistan started a vast program for improving on-farm water management, assisted through a series of three successive Bank-financed projects (stage three is still ongoing). The program’s environmental and economic goals were typical for irrigation projects: improving the husbandry of the farmer’s vital resources of water and land, reducing seepage and losses, controlling bank erosion, and increasing irrigation effectiveness. But the Pakistani projects broke new ground by recognizing the key role of the local actors: the water users themselves. Legislation was enacted to empower farmers to form water users’ associations along each watercourse and help in canal lining, thereby creating grassroots social structures for sustainable water management.

Although covering all of Pakistan’s 100,000 watercourses requires much more work, the creation of some 14,000 users’ associations, despite their ups and downs, is already an extraordinary accomplishment. By investing in building organizational capacity, the water management program complements the physical canal network with a new social infrastructure, helping to improve environmental management by increasing the “organizational density” of Pakistan’s rural society.

Irrigation projects—an area in which the World Bank has long been involved—are a good test case for whether or not development strategies are organization-intensive and purposively construct social sustainability. Many governments have supported irrigation by financing and building the physical infrastructure of large irrigation systems. Without such an infrastructure, irrigation is impossible. But if the institutional structures are not created as well, sustainable irrigation cannot occur.

In practice, irrigation programs have often dealt with institution building by proliferating governmental bureaucracies to manage the irrigation systems. Infinitely less attention has been paid to the creation of stable, culturally appropriate, and institutionally enduring patterns of social organization at the grassroots level. Indeed, while top-heavy irrigation administrations have multiplied and flourished, the creation of networks of water users’ associations, or support for existing ones, has been underrated, and, in some cases, ignored. Since neglecting or bypassing existing grassroots organizations amounts to disinvestment in institutions and in the social capital for development, many of these projects have been undermined, and physical irrigation structures have deteriorated (or even collapsed) much earlier than they would have otherwise.

Learning from such experiences, Bank- financed irrigation projects in the 1980s have embraced a more organization-intensive strategy, promoting the creation of water users’ associations. The most striking example is probably the innovative irrigation program in Pakistan, which embodies an organization- intensive strategy that has led to higher organizational density and better resource management (see box). Similar successful approaches have been applied by governments and the Bank in communal irrigation schemes in the Philippines, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Eastern Senegal has benefitted from a uniquely successful program aimed at creating pastoral/grazing associations that have effectively improved grasslands and water management.

In sum, promoting group formation and creating organizations are not easy social endeavors, but they are key avenues for “putting people first” and for designing strategies around social actors. The returns from enhanced degrees of adequate social organization are enhanced welfare, lasting social sustainability for development programs, and better environmental management.