Amman, 23 June 2014- Representatives of Arab governments, civil society including Somali Women Development Center (SWDC), academia, and leading think tanks, meeting in Amman, Jordan, agreed on the centrality of social cohesion in managing peaceful political and social transition in the region. This agreement came at the conclusion of a 2-day consultation convened by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to support the formulation of a new regional initiative that fosters human development through contributing to long term peace and stability in the region.
“Cohesive societies are more peaceful societies,” stressed UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark in her message to the consultation. “They are better able to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence, and that is vital for human development.”
The concept of social cohesion has gained salience in the current Arab context as countries in the region face the challenge of finding common ground to hold their communities together at a time of fundamental change. Whether dealing with ongoing conflict or attempting to recover and rebuild after conflict, struggling with major post-revolution political transformations, or voluntarily embarking on reform processes to prevent social breakdown, Arab countries have made use of different means to preserve social cohesion.
Where some countries resorted to comprehensive and prolonged national dialogue process, others launched transitional justice initiatives including truth and reconciliation commissions. In some contexts, inclusive constitution-making processes brought together opposing groups around the common goal of rebuilding the nation.
Rather than striving for a single definition of social cohesion, participants highlighted the multiple and context-specific routes taken in the pursuit of social cohesion. What is more important is that such a pursuit is grounded in insightful analysis of the local dynamics, that it is nationally-owned and tailored to realities on the ground, and that it is inclusive and participatory.
History has shown that social cohesion can be voluntary or forced, but to promote sustainable societal harmony—a key prerequisite for human development, initiatives must be grounded in basic human rights and promote human dignity and community security. Building inter-communal trust among all groups of society, and between them and the State and its major institutions, is critical. Appreciating the participatory nature of building and sustaining social cohesion, participants highlighted the role of women and youth, not as special groups, but as social actors with their own distinct perspective and reading of reality.
Deliberations also underlined the critical role of education and the media in fostering social connectedness and countering divisiveness, polarization, and sectarianism, all of which are symptomatic of uncertainty that prevails at times of transition. To counter the rising sectarian challenges, participants stressed the positive role that religious leaders and religious institutions can and should play in promoting social peace.
Several entry points to translate the concept of social cohesion into practice were examined, including the application of a human rights-based approach and conflict analysis methodologies; rule of law and security sector reform; creating inclusive public spaces for participation of civil society organizations; and decentralization of governance structures.
To be able measure progress toward a more cohesive society, the question of developing tools, indices, and indicators on the status social cohesion, including at a regional level, received much attention.
“We are very encouraged that this consultation has validated our focus on promoting social cohesion as an emerging development priority in the Arab region,” said Sima Bahous, Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS) in her concluding address. She saluted the pioneering effort of the consultation to discuss the prospects and challenges of social cohesion as an area of development programming stressing that “ideas and suggestions made here will help shape the proposed regional project.”
The UNDP-RBAS regional project on social cohesion is expected to include knowledge and capacity development components that will support country level development programmes implemented by UNDP offices in the region, in collaboration with national counterparts.