Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Why the G 20 should look at Social Cohesion

Violent protests by youth in Tunisia and Algeria against persistent high unemployment… the unresolved cleavage between “red shirt” protesters and government supporters in Thailandfood riots in Mozambique… protesting strikers in Chinese factories demanding higher wages… and Maoist guerrillas organizing indigenous people and other groups who have not shared in the economic boom in India…

All these examples remind us that social cohesion - “the glue that holds society together” is challenged even as poverty goes down across the developing world and many countries start to converge to rich country standards of living. Surprisingly, discontent is not only rife in poor countries but also in the emerging – many G 20 - countries that contributed to and benefited most over the last economic boom.

Last week an International Conference on Social Cohesion and Development was organized at OECD to try to shed some light on this puzzling topic. Some 150 researchers, academics, and development practioners from more than 20 different countries met to discuss various aspects from measuring social cohesion to what is needed to foster and develop it.

Through parallel sessions presenting more than 30 papers on different aspects of social cohesion and its relationship to development, participants tried to hammer out some common understanding on how best a cohesive society can both help and benefit from development. Three important common threads emerged:

1. Poverty reduction is not enough to ensure social development. Fabulous gains against poverty have been made in many emerging countries over the last few decades. While frameworks like the UN’s Millenium Development Goals keep an important focus on the perils of extreme poverty, we must not forget that being non-poor isn’t an automatic guarantee that someone isn’t excluded in a society, does trust their neighbours, or feels capable of improving their lives further themselves. Building cohesive society requires shared spaces and viewpoints where all citizens can feel included and manage collective action problems peacefully.

2. Relative comparisons are important both within and across societies. Individuals love to compare themselves to their friends, family and fellow citizens, but also to people living elsewhere on the planet. As differences between countries decline, and differences within countries increase in a world interconnected by technology, the differences between those who benefit most from globalization the most and those who don’t is easier than ever to see around us everyday. Societies need to watch out for the emergence of a “Facebook” generation of elites, who feel closer to each other than they do to their own neighbours.

3. New data sources make the difficult task of defining, measuring, and fostering social cohesion a realistic objective. Recognition by the international community that data and indicators to measure societal progress need to go beyond single measures of progress, like GDP, has helped stimulate the creation of new and interesting data. A growing wealth of data on inequality, multidimensional poverty, subjective well-being and social capital are helping to make social cohesion possible.

Yesterday, President Sarkozy of France laid out the G 20 and G 8 agenda for the coming month calling for more attention towards the social dimensions of globalization. Social cohesion provides a useful framework for doing so as a means and an end of development. We are currently witnessing the shift of the center of economic gravity from the west to east with many ensuing opportunities and risks. It is now the right time to put this topic on the agenda as it is of high and increasing relevance for all the G 20 countries and beyond.

The recent events in Tunisia and elsewhere clearly demonstrate that there is an urgent need for tackling the concerns of citizens of being excluded, not heard, marginalized and without any power. Putting social cohesion on the agenda of the G 20 could provide a useful first step to this end.

Chris and Johannes

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