Social cohesion is process of increasingly harmonious coexistence in a given society between individuals, groups and the institutions. Essential qualities of cohesive societies include high levels of trust, a shared vision for a common future, and responsive and legitimate governance institutions, which actively support inclusive economic development. Social cohesion helps prevent socio-political polarization by tapping into the local peacebuilding networks which can manage and interrupt conflict forming dynamics, and provide space for new forms of political consensus.
The UN Secretary General António Guterres has highlighted how social exclusion, polarization, extreme inequalities, disputes over natural resources and shortcomings in governance undermine social cohesion, contributing to conditions which may lead to conflict. The 2018 World Bank-United Nations report, Pathways for Peace, reinforces the argument for more inclusive societies by asserting that “Exclusion from access to power, opportunity, services, and security creates fertile ground for mobilizing group grievances to violence, especially in areas with weak state capacity or legitimacy or in the context of human rights abuses”. Strengthening social cohesion supports societal resilience through investment in inclusive and sustainable development. “For all countries, addressing inequalities and exclusion, making institutions more inclusive, and ensuring that development strategies are risk-informed are central to preventing the fraying of the social fabric that could erupt into crisis”.
Current efforts to reform the international peacebuilding architecture are focused on developing local capacities and resources to promote sustainable peace through strengthening social cohesion and fostering a sense of ‘living together’. SeeD’s evidence-based peacebuilding approach offers governments, donors and peacebuilding organizations the opportunity to measure social cohesion, as it relates to vertical state-society relations and horizontally between diverse groups and among members of society. Social cohesion reflected through vertical state-society relations supports civic loyalty and citizens’ trust and confidence in state actors, institutions and processes, endowing the state with broad legitimate powers to govern a peaceful society. Horizontal characteristics of social cohesion reside in healthy social networks and connections which exhibit a sense of belonging and a shared future for harmonious coexistence between people.
Reconciliation is the process of restoring social cohesion in societies damaged by conflict and investing in local and national capacities to heal past wrongs. It involves leveraging the full range of socio-psychological, economic and political assets required to address the root causes of grievance, which drives the conflict cycle. We work with partners in conflict situations to identify the most effective community resources for strengthening resilience against conflict forming dynamics and proposing measures, based on evidence, that can interrupt processes which have the potential to trigger violent conflict. This helps create conditions for nurturing social cohesion both as a means to prevent conflict and to consolidate a durable peace.
Reflections from the Field
Pioneering work in evidence-based peacebuilding was developed through the Social Cohesion and Reconciliation Index (SCORE), which was financed by UNDP and USAID as part of a 10-year programme for building trust between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. We assessed social cohesion and reconciliation at different times during the period from 2013 to 2016, providing a strong evidence-base for predicting policies which had the potential to support a political compromise to end the division of the island. SCORE results showed that in both communities, feeling represented by institutions was positively associated with support for a political compromise. We demonstrated that the majority of Cypriots do not feel represented in the negotiation process and this is a key factor in determining whether people are ready to accept compromises made at the negotiation table. This finding helped convince UN partners and the Chief negotiators to establish the Cyprus Dialogue Forum, which was launched in 2015. The Forum created an open space for political parties to discuss the future of the island with leaders from civil society, business and the labour movement from both communities. We also identified cultural distance as being a significant obstacle to a political compromise, with citizens in each community perceiving members of the other community as being foreign. The degree of cultural distance was surprising given that many past peacebuilding efforts in Cyprus had focused on demonstrating the cultural commonalities between the two communities. However, our data showed something quite different. In the Greek Cypriot community, cultural distance was highest among women, young people, the religiously devout and people who voted for right-wing political parties. While in the Turkish Cypriot community, people with low levels of education and right-wing political views were more culturally distant. The Leaders of the two communities, who were eager to find ways to encourage inter-communal relations as a way to improve the social climate for the negotiation process, were quick to respond to these findings. The result was the creation of inter-communal Technical Committees on Culture and Education, led by prominent political figures from the two communities, and designed to support the formal negotiations.
In 2016 and 2018, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and UNDP commissioned SeeD to assess social cohesion and reconciliation in support of the sustaining peace agenda in Liberia. During two successive SCORE projects, we made recommendations to the Government of Liberia on revising the Strategic Roadmap for National Healing, Peace-building and Reconciliation and setting goals for the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD). SCORE analysis and indicators have also been used to design the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) for 2019-2022. SCORE findings provided predictive assessments of strategic peacebuilding interventions that hold the greatest potential for impact, while context-specific indicators have been designed to monitor progress for SDG 5 and SDG 16 targets, helping to domesticate the 2030 global agenda for Liberia. In 2018 SCORE Liberia findings were used to inform the policy debate around transitional justice. Whilst most people express forgiveness towards those who were responsible for the violence towards civilians during the country’s civil war, 20% of Liberians want to see legal measures taken to hold perpetrators to account for their role in violating human rights. SCORE results show that forgiveness and empathy are resilience factors against outbreak of future conflict, with almost 80% of people believing that granting amnesty selectively to certain perpetrators, but not to others, will jeopardize peace and stability. The case for restorative justice and national healing is strengthened by SCORE results which demonstrate that that the painful legacy of war (severe assault, torture, detention) is responsible for people feeling isolated, substance abuse, tolerance of corruption and negative perceptions of other ethnic and social groups. Using the SCORE findings, we are playing a pivotal role in exploring consensus building opportunities around different forms of justice and identifying appropriate mechanisms for national healing.