Social cohesion, what do we know about it?

Urban environments are opportunities for growth and draw diverse groups from different backgrounds, however, this has the potential to lead to social fragmentation causing strained relations and possibly violence. Social cohesion building and strengthening is critical to community programmes in urban contexts. Our emerging Cities for Children Framework, a multi-disciplinary and integrated programming model, includes “building social cohesion amongst diverse communities and promoting inclusion of marginalized and vulnerable groups” as one of the strategic pillars, essential for development interventions in diverse, dynamic and dense urban environments. This is also aligned with the New Urban Agenda’s focus on social cohesion as a critical element for achieving SDG #11 “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

With all of this in place, the critical question we and other international NGOs need to ask ourselves is: Do we really understand social cohesion as a transversal concept cutting across several sectors and regions? 

Last month, I was invited as a keynote speaker at a workshop on social cohesion targeting mayors and heads of unions of municipalities from cities and towns hosting Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The workshop aimed to exchange knowledge and practice among local authorities, local and international NGOs to better address the implications of forced migration and to ensure better service delivery in the context of the refugee crisis. Social cohesion had been previously identified as a key priority for the stability of the region and the peaceful co-existence of different social, ethnic and religious groups within the host municipalities. 

However, there is clearly a struggle in identifying one universal definition for the concept of social cohesion and accordingly unpacking it into programming approaches and respective outcomes and indicators. The workshop was able to extract common trends in and recommendations for social cohesion programming emerging from practice :

  • Historical and socio-economic context in host communities is key to understanding drivers of social cohesion: pre-existing vulnerabilities, social, ethnic and religious characteristics and needs of both local and refugee populations should be taken into account when designing social cohesion interventions
  • While the competition over services, livelihoods and economic opportunities among host communities and refugees is a driver for tensions, a fair distribution among both refugees and host communities is key to foster social cohesion through (1) ensuring access, affordability and quality of services and infrastructures; (2) local economic development and job creation for both host communities and refugees; and (3) building on positive signs of inclusion of refugees in cultural and/or local economic life
  • Although local governments often implement sectorial policies, comprehensive and transversal approaches are needed to address the multi-dimensional characteristic of social cohesion, and mainstream it in all sectors
  • Data collection on needs and capacities of both local population and refugees is key to adjust programs and can be truly leveraged when shared and transferred to other relevant partners
  • Local leaders such as municipal representatives can act as change agents and coordinators by: initiating policies, acting as a bridge between different interests of different groups and sectors and coordinating different external assistance
  • Cooperative multi-stakeholder networks are key to improve social cohesion by ensuring coordinated involvement of municipalities, central government, NGOs and donors. Participatory meetings, the use of social media, knowledge sharing and multi-service centers for refugees can play a catalyst role for such networks. 
  • Inclusion of refugees and host community in the municipal planning process contributes to strengthening social cohesion, by increasing the ownership and commitment to existing policies, and activating potential social cohesion leaders
  • The media have a role to play in fostering social cohesion, and local government’s communication capacities in that matter could be improved.  

The most striking finding for me during this workshop was the extent to which local government and / or municipalities are able to influence social cohesion, or the lack of it; at times without realizing it. Furthermore, I was staggered by how much politics come into play in matters of social cohesion and how much more we – international NGOs – can do in particular situations. 

To start, local government / municipalities are at the forefront when dealing with urban crises. This is not something new; much of the existing literature on cities in crises praises the efforts led by municipalities as immediate actors. But this needs to be considered in its context. Actions made by municipalities can be damaging for social cohesion. This is where, as an NGO, we could intervene to ensure there is a pertinent understanding of the impact of interventions on relationships and dynamics at the community and neighborhood levels. Our role here is also to ensure identified drivers of tensions are reflective of the context and history. 

The linkages between local and central governments are also very pertinent in the social cohesion discourse. This was very clear during the workshop where mayors from Jordan and Turkey were praising the support being provided from central government to their local municipalities to be able to address the refugees and host communities’ needs and subsequently decrease tensions. In Jordan, the government issued a policy to ensure poor Jordanians are also benefiting from aid coming to the country due to Syria war and to support refugees. In Turkey, the government enforced institutional changes and grouped small municipalities covering adjacent areas together to be able to pool their resources and capacities to address the big challenges of the Syrian refugees. In Lebanon on the other hand, municipalities are left to deal with the large number of Syrian refugees on their own with their already restricted resources and weak capacities. This leaves mayors and heads of unions of municipalities with a high level of frustration with the central government’s lack of support. Adding to this problem, the pre-existing tensions between Lebanese people and the Syrian regime (prior to 2005), trickling down to feeling of antipathy to the Syrian people exacerbates the sense of hopelessness and defeat among the Lebanese municipalities. This does not mean to say that actions of municipalities in Lebanon – triggering increased tensions – are justifiable; it merely serves as an example to re-iterate the importance of contextual understanding and the need to redefine and think beyond what we currently understand as social cohesion to better fit the environment and purpose. 

Thus, how we define and measure social cohesion impacts how we understand and what we do about social cohesion. Therefore, important acknowledgement of conceptual and methodological limitations of current approaches to capturing social cohesion is a necessary first step in harnessing social cohesion as an innovative approach to address instability in refugee host communities.

- By Aline Rahbany, Urban Programming Advisor, Urban CoE

Read World Vision’s Research Report ‘Social Cohesion between Urban Refugees and Host Communities in Lebanon and Jordan and Lebanon’