In Romania, the downfall of communism in 1989 ushered in a host of challenges that continue to plague the nation. As the country has struggled to progress under the umbrella of a new government, a semi-presidential republic, common development strategies have failed to work. As a result, the process of social and economic reconstruction has been slow moving. I would like to suggest that this shortfall can be attributed to the lack of a development strategy that incorporates principles of both social capital and civic virtue.
In the fall of 2012, I was fortunate enough to spend a semester studying abroad in Romania. I lived with those who had survived communism as well as a new generation who had inherited its effects. This brought me face to face with the destruction that nearly 50 years of communist ideology can have on a group of people. The ultimate goal of communism in Romania was full equality, which was manifest through the device of control. Collective action was seen as the inherent enemy to communism, for the risks it presented to authority. Today we see the effects of this in the form of bitterness and resilience towards one’s neighbor, entwined in an attitude of suspicion which Romania’s government once promoted to prevent assailment.
The breakdown of a community’s vitality can signal a lack of social capital and civic virtue. According to political scientist and author Robert Putnam, social capital consists of the value derived from social networks. When community members do things for one another, values such as trust, cooperation and reciprocity accumulate. Civic virtue, in the same respect, is the cultivation of habits that make for a healthy community. This can include things like volunteerism or active participation in the political process.
Romania largely lacks evidence of both social capital and political virtue, and we can see the manifestation of that today in many of Romania’s shortcomings. Economists predicted a respectable economic growth rate of 3 percent for the country in 2009. To their surprise, however, the economy shrank by almost 7 percent. Western values, including a market led economy and a representative government, have not hindered similar cultural attitudes and luxuries as one might expect. In turn, Romania suffers the effects of poverty, exemplified by a healthcare system tailored to the wealthy.
Looking at Romania’s corruption index can also shed some more light on the current situation. Romania currently ranks 66th out of 176 countries according to Transparency International. While this ranking lags behind many of its European counterparts, what is more disturbing are the numbers manifest in public opinion polls. 83 percent of people feel that their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective, and 87 percent of people feel that corruption is increasing. In addition, Romanians identify political parties and parliament and legislature as being the two most corrupt institutions within the state.
Romania needs institutions that are transparent and meet the expectations of the public and the international community. Cultivating social capital and civic virtue are two avenues through which the public can influence and shape their government and community leaders. When citizens feel like they are helpless to effect change, the likelihood that they will act decreases significantly. There has been no encouragement for groups to come together around an issue in Romania, whether it be environmental protection or domestic abuse, and therefore the possible gains resulting from collective action are very much absent.
Non-profits and development oriented organizations have also struggled to succeed in Romania. They, too, experience suspicion from the public and consistently fight against embedded corruption. But by encouraging social capital and civic virtue, they can teach Romanians how to receive their help and how to seek justice for themselves.
The future of Romania’s livelihood, in part, will depend upon common development programs to cultivate social networks and teach political agency. The things that social and economic flourishing hinges upon are trust, reciprocity and active citizenship. We ought to not only see these goals to fruition in our own lives, but in the lives of those who need them most.
-Jenny Hyde is currently a senior at Gordon College majoring in International Affairs with an International Development concentration. She is an advocate for political engagement and gender equality. Follow @jennyhyde_live.