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A Lack of Civil Society Can Kill You

According to a recent study by scholars in the UK, nations that go through major shocks or transitions will see increased mortality rates if they don’t have strong civil society institutions to cushion the fall. The study looked specifically at morbidity in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states, and found that rapid privatization in those countries lead to increased mortality rates, especially in Russia. In 2008 the life expectancy of Russian men was below 60 years, while in 1985, just a few years before the break up of the Soviet Union, it was over 67 years.

The most interesting finding to me, though, was that the effects of privatization were reduced if social capital was high. Harvard’s Robert Putnam has been arguing for years about the importance of civil society to democracy since civic institutions (churches, trade groups, sports clubs, etc.) increase interpersonal trust and social capital among citizens. But according to the UK study, those institutions can also help ease the pain of major economics shocks by reducing stress among the adult population during those periods of economic uncertainty. According the paper, “In countries in which more than 45 percent of the population was a member of a social organization, mass privatization had no significant adverse association with mortality rates.” The report compares the Czech Republic to the states of the former Soviet Union and found that in the Czech Republic nearly half of adults belonged to some sort of civic group, compared to less than 10% in the former Soviet countries.

Beyond just reducing stress, though, I would also argue that these groups could provide services to the sick and poor that weakened or non-existent state institutions could not. It’s an open question as well whether the Internet can help to support the creation of new types of online civic groups, or if it is just aiding the decline of traditional ‘brick and mortar’ groups. Given the state of the global economy, this is an increasingly important question, especially if the results of the UK research hold up to greater scrutiny. You can access the a summary of the report here.

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