By Zenanile Dlamini

Whereas the socioeconomic experiences of an individual shape their understanding and perception of the world, there is a correlation between poor social support systems and an increase in social problems.

A study conducted by the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC) on ‘The Implication of Teenage Pregnancies in Eswatini’ reveals that the deterioration of social institutions, such as the family unit, is a key contributing factor to the increase in teenage pregnancies in the country.

Another ESEPARC study analysing the relationship between youth unemployment and mental ill health finds that the lack of social support from family and communities has negative effects on the mental health of unemployed youth in Eswatini.

The study reveals that the lack of social support structures leads to unemployed youth engaging in a spiral of self-defeating activities such as drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, crime, and violence. This is exacerbated by the absence of recreational and structured activities for young people in the different communities.

Research shows that society is made up of different social institutions that act as key agents of socialisation. Individuals develop habits, routines, and social conventions through these social institutions, which comprise structures of relationships, roles, and functions that give meaning to people’s lives.

In the absence of these institutions, various socioeconomic issues creep up, which impede development. Social and economic development are complementary, hence policymakers should leverage social institutions as a key tool in building positive and healthy societies.

The role of social capital

Defined as the links, shared values, norms, traditions, and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and work together, social capital is increasingly being recognised as a necessary ingredient of development. Studies show that the social links people make should not be ignored in economic development discourse because they can catalyse economic growth.

Stanford University Professor Mark Granovetter argues that social structures affect economic growth in various ways. Using innovation as an example, he notes that families play a huge role in the construction of a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in children.

Growing empirical evidence indicates that social capital contributes significantly to sustainable development. For instance, in a study on ‘Social Capital and Economic Growth’, Aguilera (2016) finds that social capital accounts for an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) of 11 countries in South and North America.

Moreover, studies show that communities with high social capital tend to have stronger social networks, which reduces poverty and vulnerability because there is a high level of trust and willingness to help one another in times of trouble.

In an analysis of the impact of social capital on crime in the Netherlands, Akcomak and Weel (2008) find that in selected Dutch municipalities, communities that possess high levels of social capital experience low levels of crime because the community social structure plays an important role in crime prevention by providing informal social control, support, and networks.

 Leveraging social capital for development

The Eswatini Social Development Policy (2010) emphasises the importance of capacitating individuals, households, and communities to reduce intergenerational poverty and to empower them to help fight social ills.

However, social capital development in Eswatini has been limited to investments in social grants, which has largely neglected the role of other social support systems. For instance, everything considered, the Department of Social Welfare under the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office concentrates on programmes and activities that can provide safety nets to the elderly as well as orphaned and vulnerable children in the form of grants.

Public policy practice in other countries has demonstrated a much broader and more fundamental aspect of social support in the provision of varied systems through which this can be converted into productive economic benefit.

Countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Malawi are among the pioneers of using public works for provision of productive safety nets. To curb youth unemployment, these countries provide opportunities for the youth in short-term public works projects to develop their communities. This reduces inactivity among young people, offers income, and acts as a platform for skills development.

The European University Institute highlights that as a National Human Development Project, Morocco has launched an economic memorandum that seeks to invest in intangible (social) capital through boosting the critical aspects of development such as the quality of institutions, creation of cultural, sports, and religious infrastructure particularly for the youth. The United Kingdom has also invested in social capital through building active community programmes that enhance and focus on the role of communities in addressing local social challenges.

The Government of Eswatini’s efforts are commendable in establishing 16 youth centres in the four regions, which were designed to function as social support structures for the youth. However, their effective operation depends also on creating sustainable communal social structures that can foster social cohesion and provide social support to the youth.

Such centres can serve as platforms for learning and engaging in structured productive economic activities. For example, community youth councils can be elected to work closely with existing councils (bucopho) on addressing issues related to the youth. Facilitation of capacity building programmes in collaboration with organisations such as the Youth Enterprise Fund can be considered.  

Having strong social support structures, not only through community centres, but also by offering opportunities to participate in activities such as volunteering, apprenticeships, and internship programmes can keep the minds of the youth active, especially as they search for employment. Local communities have to take it upon themselves to run their own programmes that can enhance the participation of the youth in the social and economic development of their constituencies.

 A way forward

Capacitating individuals involves changing their perceptions, attitudes, and worldviews that inhibit their participation in the economy. Efforts should be augmented towards changing the behaviour of people from an early age through integrated activities in communities that reduce idle time, especially for young people.

This is not something that can be done once a young person faces unemployment later in life but requires continuous interventions from as early as primary school. This can be done through early entrepreneurship training, for example, where children are taught how to use their skills and talents as a way of generating income.

As a country that faces high levels of youth unemployment and increasing social problems, harnessing social capital would be a step towards minimising the spread of social ills that arise through socioeconomic issues such as youth unemployment.

If communities can be empowered to come together and address socioeconomic issues at community level, it eases the burden on government and leads to more participatory and holistic social and economic development.