How to achieve social cohesion?

Social cohesion is a key factor for sustainable development. It represents an essential requirement for achieving peaceful transformations to sustainability and for implementing the principle of leaving no one behind as set out in the 2030 Agenda. It makes communities and states more resilient in the face of crises and facilitates change processes that benefit everyone. The last few years have seen the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), together with its partners, become a hub for empirical research and advisory services globally, bringing together theoretical concepts and measurement approaches in the area of social cohesion.


Societies are drifting apart

The drifting apart of societies has gained increasing attention in public debates in the global South and global North. Social cohesion is a challenge for all of us. Cohesion is the result of mutual trust, identification with a community, and cooperation between individuals and social groups that is oriented to the common good rather than particularistic interests. Strong and inclusive political institutions are needed in order to encourage and maintain it. These institutions facilitate and develop constructive relationships between individuals and groups within society and between them and the state.


Protecting and strengthening social cohesion is therefore an increasingly central goal for all countries and the international community. Numerous states, international organisations and other stakeholders have placed social cohesion high on their agendas. In Germany, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has made social cohesion a key topic of its future development policy.


Measuring social cohesion empirically

Against this backdrop, DIE, together with its partners, aims through its research and advisory activities to achieve a better understanding of social cohesion and be able to explain the conditions to which it is linked, along with the levers that could promote or jeopardise it. DIE is working particularly on the empirical measurement of this complex phenomenon, as the best way to make it amenable to the analysis of social cohesion in individual societies.


Data from Afrobarometer’s nationally representative periodic surveys form the principal basis of this work. Based on the research results showing that political action can strengthen social cohesion, the team at DIE is examining the impact of tax, social and economic policy and of values, institutions and peacebuilding. These insights provide a key foundation for evidence-based policy-making. DIE will make these findings available to and discuss them openly with policy-makers.

Starke, inklusive Institutionen sind notwendig

Das Auseinanderdriften von Gesellschaften wird in öffentlichen Debatten im Globalen Süden und Norden immer mehr thematisiert. Gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhalt ist eine Herausforderung für alle. Um ihn zu fördern und zu erhalten, bedarf es starker, inklusiver Institutionen. Diese ermöglichen und pflegen konstruktive Beziehungen zwischen den Mitgliedern und Gruppen einer Gesellschaft sowie zwischen ihnen und dem Staat. Zusammenhalt entsteht durch gegenseitiges Vertrauen, Identifizierung mit dem Gemeinwesen und gemeinwohlorientierter, anstatt partikularistischer, Kooperation von Individuen und sozialen Gruppen.


Sozialen Zusammenhalt zu schützen und zu stärken, ist ein wichtiges Ziel für Gesellschaften und globale Politik. Entsprechend haben zahlreiche Staaten, internationale Organisationen sowie eine Vielzahl weiterer Akteure soziale Kohäsion prominent auf ihre Agenden gesetzt. In Deutschland hat das Bundesministerium für  wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung (BMZ) gesellschaftlichen Zusammenhalt zu einem Kernthema seiner zukünftigen Entwicklungspolitik gemacht.

Soziale Kohäsion empirisch messen

Vor diesem Hintergrund zielen Forschung und Beratung des DIE darauf ab, soziale Kohäsion besser zu verstehen und erklären zu können, an welche Bedingungen sie geknüpft ist und welche Stellschrauben sie fördern oder gefährden können. Insbesondere arbeitet das DIE an der empirischen Messung dieses komplexen Phänomens. Nur so kann es für die Analyse einzelner Gesellschaften zugänglich gemacht werden.


Daten aus den regelmäßigen, national repräsentativen Umfragen von Afrobarometer bilden die Hauptgrundlage dieser Arbeit. Basierend auf den Ergebnissen der Forschung, die zeigen, dass politisches Handeln soziale Kohäsion befördern kann, untersucht das Team des DIE Auswirkungen von Steuer-, Sozial- und Wirtschaftspolitik sowie von Werten, Institutionen und Friedensförderung. Diese Kenntnisse stellen eine wichtige Grundlage für evidenzbasiertes politisches Handeln durch Entscheidungsträger*innen dar. Das DIE hat zum Ziel, diese Ergebnisse der Politik zur Verfügung zu stellen und mit ihren Vertreter*innen offen zu diskutieren – dazu tragen regelmäßige Publikation und Veranstaltungen unterschiedlicher Art bei.

Megatrends such as rising inequalities, demographic change, migration, increasing nationalism and autocratisation, as well as digitisation and urbanisation represent opportunities, but also threats to social cohesion. These opportunities and threaths need to be understood with the support of research in order to find appropriate policy responses. Since 2020, the Social Cohesion Hub, which was initiated and launched by DIE, provides a central information and networking platform for scientists and practitioners working on this topic worldwide.


COVID-19 as a global stress test for societies

The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have made the rather abstract concept of social cohesion highly tangible. The impacts of the pandemic are a global stress test for societies, in some cases such as Brazil or the USA threatening to polarise them further. However, first evidence suggests that, in the short term, the challenges of the pandemic can also serve to promote cohesion. The mutual solidarity when everybody feels challenged in one or them other way, has strengthened a sense of togetherness. However, it quickly became apparent that the narrative of all societies being affected equally was not the case. While all societies and their citizens face restrictions, they are not all in the same boat. Particular regions, sectors and social groups have been hit especially hard by the effects of the pandemic. The dramatic consequences of the global shut-down (including job and income losses, government debt and restrictions of individual freedoms) are likely to cause fresh upheaval in the medium and long term especially and further exacerbate inequalities. The volume of public budgetary finance required to absorb the social and economic impact will also be enormous. If people perceive that the various burdens of the pandemic are distributed unequally while some sectors and income groups benefit illegitimately from the measures, then this could undermine social cohesion. It has also emerged that the necessary protection measures may only be effective if they are backed by all population groups and individuals and society accept responsibility for one another.


Protecting and strengthening social cohesion and, by extension, resistance to stress, is therefore a goal for all countries, whether industrialised or not. Social cohesion is both an prerequisite for flourishing and peaceful global cooperation and, ideally, the result of such cooperation. Development policy can make a key contribution in this regard. Multi-directional dialogue on social cohesion between the global South and North is an important starting point for joint knowledge-creation. Global development policy can also play a leading role when it comes to promoting inclusive and dialogue-focused democratic systems, the rule of law and human rights protection. It is necessary in this context to not only take account of social cohesion at all levels of development policy and avoid viewing it as a sector, but also to learn from the openness of societies in the global South. Initiated by DIE, the Social Cohesion Hub works with international research partners to make a key contribution to scientifically examining the success factors for social cohesion. It also provides a platform for practical dialogue about the successes and challenges in promoting social cohesion.

The authors

Dr. Julia Leininger is Head of the Programme “Transformation of political (dis-)order: Institutions, values and peace” and co-lead of the research project “Social Cohesion in Africa”. She works on political transformation, democracy promotion and social cohesion.

Armin von Schiller (PhD) is Senior Researcher in the Programme “Transformation of political (dis-)order: Institutions, values and peace” and co-lead of the research project “Social Cohesion in Africa”. His work focuses on Good Financial Governance and social cohesion in developing countries, with a special emphasis on tax morale, revenue administration and citizen-state relationships.

Prof. Dr. Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi is CEO of the Afrobarometer, former Executive Director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) and retired Professor, University of Ghana, Legon. He has extensively worked on prospects and challenges of democratic governance in Africa