Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Some of the most pressing debates in development studies have concerned the relative merits of states and markets, or the means by which markets might be regulated by a range of public institutions from the local to the global scale. These debates have taken shape, most famously, in the contrasting cases of sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, and they have an obvious and continuing relevance in countries as diverse as Brazil, Nigeria, India and China. Yet if debate on these issues continues to be fierce, there appears to be general agreement that ‘strong states’ or ‘free markets’ need to be kept in check by vibrant civil societies. Indeed, it is a common proposition in development studies that this hazy zone of ‘freedom’ between the family and the state is a source of unparalleled strength for ordinary men and women, and a source of development itself and even economic growth.
Robert Putman has made this claim as strongly as anyone. His suggestion that economic growth is promoted by a prior build-up of social capital – of people's engagements with a dense network of civic associations – has become a staple of World Bank thinking since the mid-1990s. Even where the causal propositions of Putnam are refused, it is clear that the virtues of civil society are widely admired. Arturo Escobar looks to civil society as a breeding ground for oppositional movements and experiments. It functions for him, and perhaps also for Ashis Nandy in India, as a potential zone of resistance to the dehumanizing claims of developmentalism.