Rural development projects can generate social capital

Social capital can be improved through external interventions. This is according to a paper published by Cosyns et al in Small-scale Forestry, which describes how social capital was enhanced through the interventions of a World Agroforestry Centre project that promoted njansang commercialisation in rural Cameroonian households.

farmer trainersSocial capital refers to the social networks and institutions, and interpersonal interactions that are important to farmers’ livelihoods. Its place in sustainable rural development has been recognised but the creation of social capital through external interventions remains challenging. How can development projects reinforce social capital rather than cause its decay during interventions?

Empirical data on social capital in general are limited; data on whether development assistance can enhance social capital or not are even scarcer. The few studies on the topic indicate divergent results. The research contributes to narrowing this knowledge gap by examining the impact of development projects on social capital in the tropical humid forest zone of Cameroon. The investigated research-for-development project, called ‘Agroforestry Products for Africa’ (AFTP4A), led by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), focused on the promoting the commercialisation of Ricinodendron heudelotii kernels (njansang). Boosting the productivity and sustainability of forestry and agroforestry, and increasing incomes in forested areas are key focuses of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry of which the World Agroforestry Centre is a key partner.

Njansang, a non-timber forest product used as a thickening agent in soups and stews, provides income to many households in Cameroon. It is traded on local, national and, to a lesser extent, international markets. External interventions to promote non-timber forest products in rural tropical areas are challenging. To obtain successful commercialisation, they need to include social aspects. Although the main goal of the AFTP4A project was to increase and diversify farmer incomes, the creation of social capital took a prominent place within the project approach.

Can social capital be created by external interventions? What impact does a project targeting commercial development of a non-timber forest product have on social capital? Combining quantitative and qualitative measurement techniques, this study gauged the change in social capital over a period of five years. The results demonstrated that social capital can be successfully generated through external interventions: project households increased their social assets significantly at different levels. This improvement was mutually reinforced by a positive change in other farmer livelihood assets, in particular financial capital.

Creating a solid social organisation is important for achieving sustainable change. Capacity building contributes significantly to the rapid creation of strong social links. In the study area, the skills acquired were applied under a variety of circumstances outside njansang groups indicating that changes in social capital are likely to persist over time even when njansang groups disappear. However, the real added value of development projects lie in creating social capital which is sustainable; time will tell whether or not this was accomplished in the present study. While successful creation of social capital by a development organisation is possible if embedded into a wider approach to ameliorate livelihoods, it remains a precarious and complex matter with many challenges yet to be examined.

Read the full paper.

Cosyns, H; van Damme, P; De Wulf, R; Degrande, A. 2013. Can rural development projects generate social capital? A case study of Ricinodendron heudelotii kernel marketing in Cameroon. Small-scale Forestry 22p. [2013229]

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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