Connecting communities through social cohesion

October 2, 2020

United we stand, divided we fall

Photo: UNDP Ukraine

Social cohesion refers to the extent of solidarity and connectivity among groups and members of those groups in society. The concept is of particular relevance to Ukraine given the current conflict in the east of the country and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed deep rifts within society between the relatively comfortable and the most vulnerable – chasms that separated people along lines of digital access, income, gender, class, ethnicity and education. Efforts to ensure social cohesion often focus on ensuring everyone feels a sense of belonging in a community, with strong bonds to other members of that community.

Social cohesion is often defined as the glue that holds a society together. It refers to both the horizontal relationships between different groups in society, and to the vertical relationship between people and the authorities. Weak bonds in either of these dimensions can spell trouble. Weak horizontal cohesion often leads towards conflict while low vertical cohesion often manifests as a lack of trust between the population and government.

Ukraine, of course, has for a long time had horizontal cracks in its social cohesion – between politically opposing or geographically defined groups, vulnerable groups such as ethnic minorities, rural and urban populations, the young and old, and men and women. Meanwhile, on the vertical dimension, there are large gaps between poorer, working-class Ukrainians and the small, struggling middle class, as well as between them and the wealthy business and political elites.

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting vertical social cohesion under immense strain in countries around the world. The lockdown measures taken to limit the speed of the coronavirus have negatively impacted low-income groups the most, while higher-earners performing white-collar jobs and who are able to work remotely have been affected far less. Those who impose the measures are seen to suffer the least from them, thus exacerbating inequalities and further damaging social cohesion.

Measuring social cohesion

UNDP has been addressing the challenges of social cohesion in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions in eastern Ukraine for the past six years. As our point of reference for indicator baselines, we refer to the Social Cohesion and Reconciliation Index (SCORE) analysis that has been conducted in the conflict-affected east of the country regularly over that last few years.

SCORE tracks more than 70 indicators encompassing such fields as civic behavior, intergroup relations, security and access to services. Data can be shown at regional, sub-regional and city levels, and disaggregated by various demographics. The scores for indicators are measured on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 indicates that an indicator is not observed at all while 10 indicates that the indicator is observed strongly and prevalently. This data can be used by government agencies and development actors to identify and target for interventions fault lines found between social groups that weaken social cohesion.

In 2019, SCORE data reveals that despite relatively high levels of satisfaction with most public services, people still fail to connect the country’s progress with efforts of the government: less than 30 percent of respondents believe that authorities represent their concerns and serve the needs of ordinary people. On the positive side, human security, especially, political security (freedom of speech and assembly) in eastern Ukraine increased during that period. Human security is known to be a crucial factor for civic optimism and activism, as well as intergroup harmony. On the downside, women continue to feel least safe across all dimensions of human security: political, personal and economic in Ukraine.

The perception of social threats from different geographic and political groups also improved in 2019. These threats stem from the fear that representatives of these groups would undermine unity, increase crime rates and destabilize the community. The main factor driving the perceived feelings of social threats is internalization of problems, i.e., people experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Greater satisfaction with the provision of public services and infrastructure is shown to make people more content, more confident, and less threatened by other groups and of potential competition over resources.

Taking action

At its heart, social cohesion is based on the voluntary decision of an individual to participate in community life. UNDP Ukraine provides a framework that helps community members “get a taste” of cooperative practices, develop a shared vision and strategy, and impact politics.

To encourage such participation, UNDP Ukraine works with communities at the local level. To include different voices from the community, and to secure representation regardless of a person’s group affiliation, vulnerability, age, income, gender, occupation, etc. UNDP encouraged and supported the creation of Community Security and Social Cohesion Working Groups (CSWGs). The CSWG, as an open dialogue platform and community level advisory body, contributes to strengthening both vertical and horizontal social cohesion bonds.

UNDP Ukraine has also supported local civil society, helping it to evolve and become a local agent of change, promoting more cooperative and transparent relationships between the authorities and the community. Participatory budgets, innovative programmes and the principle of co-financing have significantly changed local politics in the communities targeted for UNDP support, increasing vertical social cohesion and enhancing the government’s legitimacy and accountability. The most recent SCORE reports indicate a movement in a positive direction: trust in central institutions and in non-government organizations increased in 2019 following parliamentary and Presidential elections.

In 2020, UNDP hopes to move social cohesion even further in the right direction, despite the enormous challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. During the lockdown, UNDP in Ukraine has concentrated much effort on addressing the negative aftershock of social distancing and isolation, which has had a detrimental effect on overall levels of social cohesion, especially affecting vulnerable groups and remote settlements in the conflict affected areas of the country. It has also supported the development of numerous digitization initiatives to bring government services to as many people as possible, in addition to the provision of several administrative support vehicles, thus improving vertical cohesion.

One Ukraine

At the national level, to coincide with the International Day of Peace on 21 September, UNDP launched the #OneUkraine (#ЄдинаУкраїна) Facebook campaign to encourage Ukrainians to explore their common identities and share their inspiring stories with others, thus promoting nation unity and social cohesion.

Since 2017, 12 well-known Ukrainians have become UNDP Tolerance Envoys, raising awareness of the issue of equality in Ukraine in areas of life such as music, the environment, the media, theatre, sports, art and literature. They have worked as mediators and peacekeepers: influencing the development of a culture and tradition of mutual understanding and respect, reducing the polarization of public sentiments and advocating for the strengthening of dialogue in Ukrainian society. All of this serves to increase social cohesion in the country.

Another initiative designed to promote social cohesion and national unity dialogue in Ukraine seeks to promote youth inclusion and civic participation by providing young women and men with the necessary knowledge and materials to lead the dialogue on national unity and social cohesion in Ukraine. This project, which we are doing with the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine and the All-Ukrainian Youth Centre, is called Social Cohesion Through Youth Participation.

Ultimately, the aim of our activities with social cohesion is to draw the various groups in society closer together, strengthen the bonds between them, facilitate communication and understanding amongst them, and reduce inequalities, intolerance and insecurity. A socially cohesive society thus has the potential to be stable, equitable and peaceful, as well as prosperous.  Socially-cohesive communities are more resilient to external shocks and better able to resist the negative consequences of pandemics.

The knowledge of social cohesion is not new: in the 6th Century BC the Greek storyteller Aesop wrote in his fable The Four Oxen and the Lion that “United we stand, divided we fall.” And he was right, we truly are better off if we all stick together.