Fuzzword alert: the term ‘social cohesion’ seems to be popping up across the development landscape like toadstools in autumn. The G20 prefers to talk about social cohesion rather than inequality; the World Bank is using it to discuss jobs in its forthcoming World Development Report, and the OECD recently published Perspectives on Global Development 2012: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World. The Exec Sum is free online, but you have to pay for the full report (come on people, last time I looked, this was the 21st Century….)
So what are they talking about? Here’s the OECD’s attempt at a definition:
‘A cohesive society works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility. This report looks at social cohesion through three different, but equally important lenses: social inclusion, social capital and social mobility.’ [see graphic]
Makes sense at first glance, but look a bit harder and this definition is actually quite odd. The ‘cohesive society’ is portrayed as somehow separate from its members – presumably the report is addressed to decision makers then. But what goes on inside people’s heads (other than the elites) is central – attitudes and beliefs; how different generations and genders treat each other; animosities towards minority groups or geographical, cultural, religious, ethnic or sexual ‘others’ and so on. How can a report on social cohesion not tackle things like crime or violence (see pic of the UK last summer, below)?
Instead the report stays pretty firmly in its economic comfort zone, talking in particular about the threat to social cohesion created by fast growth in many developing countries.
“Economic and social transformations during a period of fast growth bring new stresses and strains with which governments have to cope. The challenges include rising income inequalities, structural transformation, and the need to meet citizens’ rising expectations of standards of living and access to opportunity. As an emerging middle class increasingly compares itself with peers in advanced economies, its patterns of consumption and demands for quality services can be expected to change. Higher incomes, better health and improved education do not automatically translate into higher life satisfaction as the decline of life satisfaction in fast growing countries such as Thailand and Tunisia reveals.”
So what policy prescriptions follow from this treatment? Redistribution via progressive tax reform and increased and more pro-poor public spending: investment in education; protecting poor people against volatility via social protection and improved labour market institutions such as the minimum wage. The report raises the alarm on some recent developments:
‘Labour market institutions and social protection systems should be judged not only in terms of their efficiency, but also their ability to prevent or mitigate duality and segmentation. Recent innovations in social protection (the expansion of cash transfers, conditional or not, social pensions, and new forms of health coverage) have helped to reduce coverage gaps in social protection. However, they can often lead to dual systems where the poorest are covered by social assistance and the wealthy by either contribution-based or private alternatives. This leaves a significant gap, a “missing middle” of coverage amongst a large segment of informal middle-income workers. Institutions will need to evolve to better reflect labour markets’ realities if they are to produce fair outcomes with minimal strife. Universal entitlements de-link social protection from job status and offer the best prospects in terms of coverage levels and incentive structures for labour markets.’
Fair enough, but overall, I felt the OECD didn’t really do justice to the topic. Social cohesion is a complex cultural, psychological and social phenomenon, which demands a broad treatment. Whenever a new idea becomes popular like this, the danger is that instead of looking afresh at what it contributes to our understanding of development, we just recycle our existing set of ideas and say ‘because of complexity/ social cohesion/ climate change, you should do exactly what we’ve being saying all along’. I think the OECD is in danger of going down that road in this report – building social capital, supporting social mobility, and promoting social inclusion are fine, but they were standard demands long before anyone started talking about cohesion. The more interesting question is what we should be doing that’s additional or different because of a social cohesion ‘lens’, and I didn’t find that here. Anyone seen anything useful on this?