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Speech at the Launch of the NESF Report: The Policy Implications of Social Capital in Government Buildings on Wednesday 29 October, 2003 at 5.00pm


I have long had a keen interest in the concept of Social Capital. When I spoke at a Conference on Social Capital in March, 2001 I said I believed that this concept had the potential to play a very positive role in the development and evaluation of public policy. I still very much believe that to be the case and that is why I am particularly delighted to be here today to launch this report of the National Economic and Social Forum: The Policy Implications of Social Capital.    

I have no hesitation in saying that this is a ground breaking report. It marks the first comprehensive effort at national level to explain what we actually mean by the term Social Capital and what its broad implications are for us as a society and for the economy. I would like to congratulate Maureen Gaffney, the Forum and the Project Team for their initiative in this area. Tom Healy must also get particular mention for his dedication and hard work in researching and drafting this report.

Before we go any further I should be clear what precisely we are talking about. The concept of Social Capital relates to networks, relationships and feelings of belonging, of trust and a sense of civic responsibility. These are things which shape the spirit of co-operation and quality of life in local communities and groups, and enables wider society to achieve desired policy goals more effectively. I suppose you could describe Social Capital as a kind of glue that holds society together.

It is interesting that this understanding of Social Capital is, in particular respects, the exact opposite of what constitutes social exclusion:  marginalisation from employment, income,social networks such as family, neighbourhood and community,decision making and from an adequate quality of life

As a politician I can tell you that I know full well the importance of networks and networking.  However, the informal interactions and co-operation of everyday life are often taken for granted. It is clear that we need to recognise the value of this kind of co-operation. We need to appreciate the impact that it has on our society and economy and how national policy needs to take full account of this resource, both to foster it and to protect it.

This Report by the National Economic and Social Forum helps us to understand why we should be concerned about Social Capital and how, as policy makers, we should seek to maximise its potential.  Evidence examined by the NESF suggests that there are linkages between social capital and socio-economic inequality.  

Countries which have achieved higher levels of social equality tend to experience higher levels of trust, voluntary effort and civic engagement. While we must guard against being overly simplistic in examining these issues it seems that strong social capital has positive associations with quality of public governance and civic engagement as well as personal well-being, health and life satisfaction. In short, societies that have strong social capital tend to be happier places to live.

A persons ability to link into broader networks also has implications for their employment prospects and good social networks have a positive impact on how well they learn.

On the flip-side, a lack of social capital can lead to anti-social behaviour.  We all know from our experience that it is usually those most isolated within society who are the most vulnerable. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to discover that there is an established link between the incidence of suicide and the degree to which individuals have a sense of belonging to the community.  As part of this project, the NESF undertook valuable research which shows that groups less socially engaged are typically those considered hard to reach when it comes to participation in learning activities. Clearly, while Social Capital is hard to quantify, it is a resource that has, in the past, been under-valued.   

The good news is that the NESF Survey shows that Ireland is average, or above average on most indicators of social capital. My feeling is that this understates the situation, especially when you consider this years outstanding success of the Special Olympics. 

30,000 volunteers pulled together with the host towns, sponsors and participants to make it a very special and memorable event of which our country can rightly be proud. What really struck me about the Special Olympics was just how good it made us feel, as a country proud of a national event and as individuals for being involved in such a worthwhile effort.  

The NESF survey also found that while young people were not significantly less engaged socially than older people, voter turnout among this category is lower.  Significantly, the survey identifies the following groupings where social engagement is lower:

·       the elderly

·       people living in rural and large urban centres;

·       lower socio-economic groups and

·       and those who are ill, disabled or engaged in home duties.

This Government has been engaged with the promotion of social capital in a variety of ways. In the Programme for Government  we have committed to work to promote social capital in all parts of Irish life through a combination of research and ensuring that public activity supports the development of social capital, particularly on a local community level.

This commitment is demonstrated through, amongst other things:

·       our commitment to social partnership and the inclusion of the community and voluntary pillar in that process;

·       the review of the National Anti-Poverty Strategy and the recent publication of the National Action Plan for Social Exclusion;     

·       the ongoing implementation of the White Paper Supporting Voluntary Activity;

·       the publication of the Report of the National Committee on Volunteering;

·       the Special Initiatives under SustainingProgress, and

·       the appointment last year of the first ever Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Eamon O'Cuiv.    

While we must continue with the implementation of key policies that will in the long term have a positive effect on Social Capital, we must also keep abreast of new and developing thinking in this area. The related issue of Social Finance has been recently explored in a report prepared by the Dublin Employment Pact and it is a topic that deserves further consideration in the context of fostering Social Capital.  

Recent times have seen a trend towards more rational and scientific methods of policy making and development. While by and large these developments are welcome, and evidence based policy making is far preferable to the ad hoc variety, we must be careful to ensure that we do not lose sight of the human effect these policies can have.   

Reading the NESFs Report it is clear that a major challenge for policy making is in creating the right linkages between national and local level. This is critical to generating a climate of trust and participation at all levels.

There has long been a recognition that we must move away from an overly-centralised State. Over the past decade much emphasis has been placed on local development and creating local structures to help tackle at local level issues that were of national importance.   

I think it is fair to say that at this stage we do not lack local government structures and networks. In fact, we are suffering from an over-proliferation of these in some areas. That is why the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is currently undertaking a review of Local Development Structures. Some of the questions that are being posed by the discussion document for this process are particularly relevant in a social capital context, for example:  What is the appropriate balance between bottom-up decision-making and central policy making and accountability?   

We must ensure that the City and County Development Boards and the Community and Voluntary Fora cultivate local engagement and ownership of decision making while linking in with central government.   

Above all it is essential that we strike the right balance between providing appropriate support for local communities and allowing them to help themselves.  But I must stress that with involvement and ownership comes responsibility for citizens and communities. Government cannot be responsible for everything, nor can it be involved in all areas of social activity, nor should it be.  Above all, we do not want to impose some kind of heavy-handed structure onto local communities that will stifle local endeavour. Governments main role must be to create a climate of trust through support and regulation. Our focus must be on supporting people in how they interact, organise themselves and help each other. We are talking about striving to achieve a new level of maturity in Irish society by working in the true spirit of partnership to achieve common ends.

This Report also outlines policy areas where the development of social capital has particular relevance, namely Work-Life Balance, Community-Based Learning and Spatial Planning. Clearly the concept of Social Capital has a broad reach that links with many areas of public policy. This Report allows us to take stock of just how broad-ranging a social capital perspective on public policy must be. It is important that we factor the concept of Social Capital into our thinking and development of new policies and I am asking Government Departments to give full consideration to the recommendations of the National Economic and Social Forum.

I particularly note that the NESF conclude that : Perhaps the greatest contribution the Government and the social partners can make to investment in social capital is through actions that encourage social inclusion, fairness, transparency and equality of opportunity. I am delighted to say that this Government is firmly committed to pursuing this agenda.

Thank You