Social cohesion: the glue that binds society

Youth
Youth at 2011 Social Innovation Camp

Finding ourselves often at the intersection of economic, social and environmental policy making, UNDP recognizes the relevance of social cohesion. As an object of public policy social cohesion means that all members of society perceive themselves to be both agents and beneficiaries of progress. This article examines Armenia’s assets and challenges in this sphere and the implications for country’s long-term development.

We live in fast-changing times. Armenia has never been more global in its outlook with our daily lives influenced by the world economy, international politics and cultural imports.  Making sense of how these influences impact communities necessitates more than intuition.  Solid evidence and analysis are required in order to understand cohesion and identify improvements based on the best of what is already underway in Armenia.

“Taking a broad perspective, our research on the status of Social Cohesion in Armenia addresses the social consequences of globalization.  In other words, we aimed to measure how the flows of money, people and information, at the end of the day, translate locally,” says Ms. Dafina Gercheva, UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative in Armenia.

Some Highlights

  • While understanding the need for change, a proactive attitude is absent from Armenian citizens.
  • 88% of respondents attach a great value to education, and are unhappy about poor material conditions of schools (35%) and low quality of education (41%), but only a small group of respondents (8%) is eager to participate in helping their community schools to address existing challenges.

Identifying the ‘glue’

Across its work, UNDP places a strong emphasis on local context.  The social cohesion survey is no different.  Designed to offer local leaders a quantitative and qualitative assessment of the profile of the population, the changes that are taking place and the impact of these changes on the local economy and services, it will enable the local-tailoring of initiatives to enhance integration and cohesion.

Identifying the ‘glue’ that brings people together in society and correlating the traditional/cultural bonds to the socio-economic networks necessitated a research focus on three main dimensions: socio-economic conditions, participation and the sense of belonging and trust.

In partnership with the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) and the International Center on Human Development (ICHD), 3200 individuals were surveyed from communities across Armenia and 12 focus groups were conducted in order to validate and expand upon the survey results.

Looking in the mirror

In each and every component of the research, whether in education and work, participation or trust, a recurrent theme arises: while understanding the need for change, a proactive attitude is absent from Armenian citizens. The majority of us still look to institutions to make up for deficits in personal behavior or in our lives.

This is highlighted by the fact that while many respondents do not feel their interests are represented in formal institutions, only a small percent (14%) is willing to be more involved in the decision making process regarding their local area. Most people are still in a “paternalistic mood”, expecting the government (42%) or just other people (66%) to engage in solving community issues.

Responses concerning the education sector are also illustrative, highlighting that the majority of respondents (88%) attach a great value to education, and are unhappy about poor material conditions of schools (35%) and low quality of education (41%), but only a small group of respondents (8%) is eager to participate in helping their community schools to address existing challenges.

All these findings lead to two major issues. Not only do the tightly woven communities fail to take any practical steps to improve their circumstances but any such steps coming from the central or local authorities risk becoming inefficient in the long-term because local residents do not take ownership.

In addition, since the existing social cohesion fails to bring any positive effect on quality of life, this resource may begin to dwindle, especially in the current apathetic atmosphere.  Delivering social justice and responding to community needs is the most effective way of enhancing trust in public institutions, especially at local level.

Policy responses

Finite human and financial resources necessitate creativity in delivery. As such, the challenge not only concerns mobilizing resources, but the redistribution of opportunities.

The general spirit of the recommendations is that any project or initiative aimed at improving the lives of people, in every sphere, ranging from healthcare to construction, should include careful planning of interactions with communities to ensure engagement in the process and ownership of the results. The implementation of such policies will not require additional resources but, by utilizing existing ones, lead to multiplier effects at the community level and beyond.

Activities to encourage local authorities to promote a sense of belonging, empower people to play a part in improving their communities and promote a culture of active citizenship are to be encouraged. In partnership with local government, the central authorities should set out plans to improve participation, collective action and engagement in democracy, as well as the performance of public services and people’s quality of life.

UNDP’s data is just the tip of the iceberg. We suggest that the government, in partnership with NGOs and think tanks, uses this baseline and updates the database every two years. This approach would offer insights, based on medium and long term trends, into cohesion, empowerment and participation, enabling objective assessments of public and civil sector initiatives and evidenced-based policy formulation at both the national and the local level.

To encourage more research initiatives, UNDP will distribute the rich database to think tanks, universities, research centers and, of course, the government.

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