State fragility and social cohesion


What is the current state of knowledge in the literature on state fragility regarding social cohesion as either a negative or positive factor? What are donor approaches to building social cohesion in fragile states?


This report reviews the relationship between social cohesion and state fragility – focusing on literature from 2010 onwards. There is no clear empirical understanding in the literature of how social cohesion contributes to state resilience or fragility, as it is very difficult to measure, and to assess independently other variables that impact on state fragility.

Key points from this review are:

  • There is a strong consensus that a lack of social cohesion contributes to state fragility, and that social cohesion can contribute to stability, although this is not clearly supported by evidence.
  • Lack of social cohesion is seen to contribute to local-level conflict, which may escalate; lack of trust between groups; and lack of trust with the state.
  • Social cohesion may be undermined by state or elite actions which deliberately discriminate or mobilise identity politics for personal gain. This contributes to fragility.
  • Social cohesion appears to contribute to stability through increasing trust in state institutions and representatives and creating a greater capacity for collective action.
  • Vertical social capital with the state can cause community leaders to lose legitimacy in their constituencies.
  • Strong bonding capital within a group has the potential to allow mobilisation of that group for negative purposes, such as the Rwandan genocide.
  • It is of high importance to recognise the contested nature of attempting to foster social cohesion as part of a development programme – especially programmes designed and implemented by external actors. Cohesion is essentially an endogenous process, which cannot necessarily be designed by outsiders. It is also a highly politically sensitive issue, as it approaches questions of social engineering, and should be treated with caution.
  • Donors tend to measure social cohesion outcomes in terms of increase in associational life; decreases in community violence; greater trust in others; and attitudes towards the government.
  • A number of usual development approaches have been adapted to incorporate social cohesion outcomes, including Community-Driven Development/Reconstruction, social protection, and jobs. These have mixed evidence in regards to impact, but show at least some positive results.