Social Cohesion – there's a lot more to it than the OECD version

Fuzzword alert: the term ‘social cohesion’ seems to be popping up across the development landscape like toadstools in autumn. The G20 prefers to talk about social cohesion rather than inequality; the World Bank is using it to discuss jobs in its forthcoming World Development Report, and the OECD recently published Perspectives on Global Development 2012: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World. The Exec Sum is free online, but you have to pay for the full report (come on people, last time I looked, this was the 21st Century….)

So what are they talking about? Here’s the OECD’s attempt at a definition:

‘A cohesive society works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, OECD social cohesion trianglepromotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility. This report looks at social cohesion through three different, but equally important lenses: social inclusion, social capital and social mobility.’ [see graphic]

Makes sense at first glance, but look a bit harder and this definition is actually quite odd. The ‘cohesive society’ is portrayed as somehow separate from its members – presumably the report is addressed to decision makers then. But what goes on inside people’s heads (other than the elites) is central – attitudes and beliefs; how different generations and genders treat each other; animosities towards minority groups or geographical, cultural, religious, ethnic or sexual ‘others’ and so on. How can a report on social cohesion not tackle things like crime or violence (see pic of the UK last summer, below)?

Instead the report stays pretty firmly in its economic comfort zone, talking in particular about the threat to social cohesion created by fast growth in many developing countries.

“Economic and social transformations during a period of fast growth bring new stresses and strains with which governments have to cope. The challenges include rising income inequalities, structural transformation, and the need to meet citizens’ rising expectations of standards of living and access to opportunity.  As an emerging middle class increasingly compares itself with peers in advanced economies, its patterns of consumption and demands for quality services can be expected to change. Higher incomes, better health and improved education do not automatically translate into higher life satisfaction as the decline of life satisfaction in fast growing countries such as Thailand and Tunisia reveals.”

social cohesion is complicatedSo what policy prescriptions follow from this treatment? Redistribution via progressive tax reform and increased and more pro-poor public spending: investment in education; protecting poor people against volatility via social protection and improved labour market institutions such as the minimum wage. The report raises the alarm on some recent developments:

‘Labour market institutions and social protection systems should be judged not only in terms of their efficiency, but also their ability to prevent or mitigate duality and segmentation. Recent innovations in social protection (the expansion of cash transfers, conditional or not, social pensions, and new forms of health coverage) have helped to reduce coverage gaps in social protection. However, they can often lead to dual systems where the poorest are covered by social assistance and the wealthy by either contribution-based or private alternatives. This leaves a significant gap, a “missing middle” of coverage amongst a large segment of informal middle-income workers. Institutions will need to evolve to better reflect labour markets’ realities if they are to produce fair outcomes with minimal strife. Universal entitlements de-link social protection from job status and offer the best prospects in terms of coverage levels and incentive structures for labour markets.’

Fair enough, but overall, I felt the OECD didn’t really do justice to the topic. Social cohesion is a complex cultural, psychological and social phenomenon, which demands a broad treatment. Whenever a new idea becomes popular like this, the danger is that instead of looking afresh at what it contributes to our understanding of development, we just recycle our existing set of ideas and say ‘because of complexity/ social cohesion/ climate change, you should do exactly what we’ve being saying all along’. I think the OECD is in danger of going down that road in this report – building social capital, supporting social mobility, and promoting social inclusion are fine, but they were standard demands long before anyone started talking about cohesion. The more interesting question is what we should be doing that’s additional or different because of a social cohesion ‘lens’, and I didn’t find that here. Anyone seen anything useful on this?

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7 Responses to “Social Cohesion – there's a lot more to it than the OECD version”
  1. Claire Holder

    Excellent article that observes how we have become slaves to recycling old ideas using fanciful words and calling them new concepts. Social cohesion has always been one of the pillars on which society, whether democratic or not has been built.

  2. Thanks Duncan for the excellent and thought-provoking posting. As one of the authors of the report, a couple of clarifications on the ideas behind it …We decided to focus on the ‘fast-growing converging countries’ because we felt that a) this fitted in with our story line on ‘Shifting Wealth’ from the 2010 report – the plea that development policy needs to be reconsidered – no, completely overhauled – in the light of the rise of the emerging powers b) there is an enormous amount of literature on ‘failed states’ but that wasn’t the problematic that we were really interested in tackling- rather we wanted to focus on the ‘social costs of growth’ kind of analysis.

    I guess we avoided dealing with issues like violence and crime because we wanted to limit the scope of the study – but perhaps we made the wrong choices. That’s the difficult thing about report writing, deciding what to leave out, not what to put in!
    We work (or, in my particular case, did work, in the past tense, as I now have moved back to the UN) for the OECD, so I guess it is natural to focus on the economic dimension to social problems. That doesn’t by any means imply that anthropological or sociological approaches to the same issues are unimportant, but we did want to focus on some key questions whereby economic analysis can provide some support for a more ambitious social agenda – including on areas like minimum wages, universal social systems or the importance of popular participation.
    Take minimum wages, for instance. To take one example, our reading of the evidence is that minimum wages have contributed very substantially to the reduction of inequality in Brazil over the last decade (albeit from extreme levels). Despite strenuous efforts by the ILO and others to demystify the impact of minimum wages and advocate for their implementation, mainstream opinion amongst economists still doesn’t support such measures. We felt it was important to make the case for minimum wages as one more instrument in the armoury of social protection. People don’t usually expect that kind of argument coming from where we were writing.
    One observation made in the report which is quite novel, I think, is that we compared people’s subjective evaluations of whether they are poor with the figures produced by the World Bank on dollar-a-day poverty. It turns out that for many countries in Africa the two numbers coincide quite closely – the percentage who are poor using the dollar-a-day figure and the percentage who consider themselves poor. But there are a range of countries where there are big discrepancies – and when people’s impression about their own well-being is vastly out-of-line with their perceptions, this is a recipe for social discontent. Which two African countries stood out from our analysis? Ivory Coast and Kenya – two countries which in recent years have suffered social unrest. In other words, people’s perceptions about policies matter enormously and policymakers need to take this fully into account, rather than simply base their interventions on so-called ‘hard-numbers’. Put simply, far-sighted governments need to actively strive towards cohesive social policies, or they risk provoking unrest and civil disorder (and, eventually, as we saw in North Africa last year, a loss of power).
    Finally, to Claire’s comment, we don’t pretend to be inventing a new concept with the idea of social cohesion – simply, using three well-established (if not uncontroversial) concepts to make a case for more boldness in social policy making at a time when quite a lot of developing countries can afford to do so.
    This, in any case, is my take on the report. Perhaps my fellow co-authors had a totally different interpretation of what we were trying to do…But that is what makes writing these reports fun!

  3. Duncan – I think you get social cohesion better than the OECD does. I was in touch with some of the people working on this report in its early stages, and found their focus to be too clouded by rich world academic perspectives.

    As I have written elsewhere (, social cohesion is essential to promoting political and economic development, especially in fragile states.

    In successful countries, the affinitive power of identity and group allegiance is channeled into country development, encouraging stability, growth, and good governance. Social cohesion also encourages the creation of more democratic and more liberal forms of government, as citizens’ sense of a common identity make it easier for them to accept changes in government, unfavorable court decisions, and disparities in wealth.

    Fragile states, on the other hand, suffer from a multiplicity of competing identity groups, producing fractured societies with little social cohesion. This political fragmentation directly impinges on the ability of these countries to foster the positive institutional environment necessary to encourage productive economic, political, and social behavior.

    But social cohesion is not something that is easily created, especially where social divisions are great. It requires a lot of work over a long time. And, as you say, it “is a complex cultural, psychological and social phenomenon, which demands a broad treatment.”

    For more on the role of social cohesion in development, see:

  4. Johannes Jütting

    Dear Seth, Claire and Duncan,

    interesting to read your reflections on the concept of “social cohesion”. My personal take is that we should accept a pluarlity of understanding of this concept like we do with the concept of social capital. I do not think the question is if the OECD “got it right” in terms of the definition (which I believe nobobdy can really claim) but rather if our proposed policies make sense and move the debate forward.

    In this context, it matters a lot for whom you right for as Duncan rightly pointed out: The OECD Development Centre has to bring in perspectives of the developing world to the OECD, including those of their policy makers. And unfortunately – in contrast what Duncan argyes at the end – social cohesion is far from being overall accepted as a worth-while policy goal. I had the chance to participate in the G 20 working groups on employment/social protection and clearly the call for improving social security, inclusive policy making, improved labour market institutions, social contract is far from being accepted by many policy makers from the emerging economies. They argue that the wanted to see the “economic case” for it compared to investment in technology, infrastructure and innovation just to name a few.

    Our report makes a compelling argument based on the results of a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis that social cohesion is not just another fuzzy donor idea but an increasing demand from citizens from all over the world with important economic, social and political ramnifications.

    The question is indeed how a “social cohesion agenda” is different from a “poverty reduction agenda” – and how policies should would change. Some ideas are in the report, more are yet to come!

    Johannes Jütting, lead author

    • Duncan

      Thanks Johannes and Andy, for really helpful explanatory comments – and sobering observations about the state of the debate at inter-governmental level. I now understand the background and logic of the report much better. It is frustrating though, that the primacy often accorded to orthodox economic arguments by decision makers leads to what to me often seems a rather impoverished debate on issues such as social cohesion, inequality, power, politics, governance etc etc

  5. Interesting discussion, thanks. I particularly agree with your assessment of the situation often arising where “we should do this thing we said because of [insert latest over-used term here]”.

    I haven’t read the full report, just the exec summary. While it is nice to see the willingness to emphasize redistribution and central socio-economic policy, surely the most worrying absence here is the lack of mention of environmental policy in the list of key areas? Surely deep ecological sustainability is a cornerstone of social capital, inclusion and mobility? How does a state rapidly disappearing under sea level achieve ‘social cohesion’?

    The other concern, which the environmental consideration points to, is the extent to which it makes sense to talk of social cohesion in national contexts, without fundamentally linking this discussion to the unequal regional and global relations that are often work to undermine and complicate ‘social cohesion’ in any given country.


    The concept of social cohesion is very important in developmental studies and peace building in particular.So far so good i think the Rwandan government has made great progress in the formation of Bridging social capital which has brought the Hutus and the Tutsis more closer than ever.The legal framework of Rwanda and other inclusive public policies needs to be applauded. Unlike his “false twin”Burundi who was reluctant to institute and implement productive measures to foster national cohesion.

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