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Civil Society, Social Capital and Governance: Liberal Policy Agendas and Indigenous Civil Society: the Fa'asamoa as a Case Study

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:26 authored by Tonkin, Edward

The funding of civil society has become a key aspect of the governance agenda for international aid. This arises out of a number of theories linking civil society to better governance through the leveraging of social capital. These theories find their genesis in a distinctly liberal body of work that has drawn its findings from Western historical experience. In particular, the work of Robert Putnam and many like him in the 1990's draws its inspiration from Alexis d'Tocqueville's observations of democratic life in the early nineteenth century United States. Here, civic associational, according to Tocqueville, played a key part in the vibrant democratic spirit of the USA. Putnam's own findings, on the difference between governance outcomes in Southern and Northern Italy, mirror those of Tocqueville. Although the formulations of civil society and social capital inherent in this liberal tradition are but one among many theories, they are the ones that have influenced the international donors and the allocation of development assistance money has reflected this. Civil society funding generally goes to ideal types of organisations that most resemble a Western conception of civil society. In particular, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO's) have proliferated to take advantage of this. This may well be overlooking many key forms of civil society that already exist in developing countries. A liberal reading of civil society that focuses on the associative values of civil society organisations would miss groups that are characterised more by kin, ethnicity or tribal ties. The fa'asamoa (or 'Samoan way') is an example of just such an institution that may be viewed as too traditional and backward looking by liberal theory, but upon reflection performs many of the key roles ascribed to civil society including as an important provider of social capital. It could be that donors concerned with good governance would do better to further engage with traditional institutions such as the fa'asamoa, than to simply create a new class of civil society, dominated by NGO's over the top of existing social structures.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Development Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Development Studies

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Overton, John