This is my tenth time to Nepal, and my mother Michelle and her friend, Joyce, have come to visit! They’re loving it, of course, and I have the opportunity to play a bit of tour guide in this beautiful country with its stunning sights, incredible history, and generous people. Everyone knows at first glance that she’s my mother, (“your face same!”) and she’s very eager to understand the nuances of their lives. It’s been fun to experience and super interesting to observe. When I have guests over here, I can’t help but think about the work/life balance of my days. This time around, I noticed that my “work” and “life” lists had a lot of crossover. Let’s go have tea with Hari, say hello to Urmila, lunch with Ramesh, dinner with Kamal. It occurred to me that this social butterflying was actually a form of work, nurturing my support network and building my social capital. It’s not just teas and lunches, but intentional gestures that I hope showed my investment in those people and their work and their lives.
The internet has so much to say about social capital: stacks of research, and hours of Ted Talks. Here’s what seems relevant to boil it down to today: “Social capital” describes the mostly intangible resources that emerge from our social interactions: for example reputation, trust, compassion, good will, and networks. Social capital feels most important to my disaster recovery work here for two reasons: building trust and nurturing big ideas.
Of course trust is important to most any goal you intend to accomplish in any relationship, but I think it’s a game-changer when you’re working in unfamiliar territory or a place where cheating and corruption are part of normal culture (like Nepal). Small experiences that demonstrate a shared trust can lead to larger leaps of faith in relationships, bigger risks and bigger payouts. The best example I can give is in our earthquake relief work with Share Nepal. Before we made any decisions or plans, my local colleague insisted we spend time “sharing tears and laughter” with our neighbors. I’ve no idea how to measure the ways that helped us in the months following, but I’m sure that it did. And when it came time to purchase and distribute aid materials, I’m quite sure our social capital saved money and time. We had spent years building trust with everyone in the chain from point of purchase to distribution, a position envied by many of our humanitarian colleagues at the time. As my position shifts more to an advocate, I’m counting on my social capital to continue to help advance my work. For better or worse, it’s just as true in Nepal’s Disaster Recovery as New York’s Wall Street – “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
Nurturing Big Ideas
Once you have even the littlest bit of social capital, you can leverage it to take a spark of an idea and test it, refine it, and nurture it. Big ideas take time to grow. People need to find holes in it, you need to hear yourself talk about it, and we all need to learn which parts really excite us. Once we have the social capital of trust in our relationships, we get the safe space to make bold suggestions, to think outside of the box, to brainstorm freely and without fear of making mistakes, and to innovate! These days, as we’re finalizing the English version of Share Nepal’s Rebuilding Plan, there are countless interesting and important points for debate and discussion. My partners and I have learned so much from each other’s assumptions and interpretations. That has really deepened our work, and I think it will make the final Rebuilding Plan more authentic, clear, and effective. We sometimes take it for granted that our working relationships should naturally be this way. But in most cases these relationships don’t come free of cost. They take a big investment of our time and energy, and in most cases they’re worth it.
If we are good to other people, they just might want to be good to us too.