Social cohesion — trust and cooperation in society — can be essential in tackling the underlying issues of fragility and conflict. On September 18, 2017, an event titled Civil Society in Fragile Contexts: A Focus on Central Asia, co-hosted with the British Council, highlighted experience from several organizations including the Social Cohesion through Community-Based Development program, a partnership between the World Bank and Aga Khan Development Network in the Kyrgyz Republic. The program focuses on building peace and social cohesion at the local level. Megan McGlynn Scanlon, Senior Program Officer for Civil Society, offers her reflection.

Social cohesion, pluralism and community resilience are vitally important themes in the Aga Khan Foundation’s work and globally. With a growing number of unstable areas worldwide, we need to understand the dynamics of preserving peace-time progress in developing countries. In our work, we talk about social cohesion as the process of strengthening communities so people can work together to resolve shared challenges in a way that promotes trust, peace, and security.

Whether our focus is on building cohesion or on mobilizing assets and building trust locally, we support communities to come together to achieve what they decide is important.

Addressing Pluralism and Inclusion

For an American audience, the panel brought together academics and practitioners to share views: what social cohesion is, why it’s important, and how to grow it. The panel emphasized the critical importance of a strong civil society for strong connections among community members. Panelists also noted that programs need to address pluralism and inclusion directly when bringing communities together. All the panelists agreed that entering communities with a framework of “countering violent extremism” is usually counterproductive. Socially-cohesive communities collaborate to resolve problems or resist outside pressures that could cause conflict. Yet how you frame the discussion greatly influences how effectively you can engage communities and their vulnerable members.

The panel discussion on September 18, “Civil Society in Fragile Contexts: A Focus on Central Asia” (watch the Facebook recording of the event below) highlighted some of our work in social cohesion.

Civil Society in Fragile Contexts: A Focus on Central Asia

We partnered with the Aga Khan Foundation for a panel discussion entitled “Civil Society in Fragile Contexts: A Focus on Central Asia”.

Panelists included Manasi Patwardhan (Mercy Corps), Abbas Barzengar (Georgia State University), Rakhat Ismanbaeva (Aga Khan Foundation), and Damir Esenaliev (SIPRI). The discussion was moderated by Alicia Mandaville (InterAction).

Posted by British Council USA on Monday, September 18, 2017


Theatre as a Way to Engage Different Viewpoints

Community members participating in Forum Theater.

The result is a truly participatory approach to community-based problem solving.  AKF has supported youth leaders to conduct performances based on problems they see in their communities. This provides a way to integrate more youth voices into the process. Topics have included migration, early marriage, and social indifference.

Social Cohesion is More than a Streetlight

In the community of Kara-Dobo, youth groups chose “indifference and inaction of the local government in solving community problems.” They cited a failure to install a street light at a traffic-prone intersection near the local school, which led to children’s deaths and injuries. More than 100 residents attended the performance. With leadership from the youth group, the performance led to crowd-sourced funds for installation of a traffic light. Local deputies worked with traffic police to buy and install the traffic light, with citizen participation. This illustrates the impact of including youth awareness and collaboration in local community development initiatives.

Elsewhere, we have seen that we build social cohesion even where our programs don’t explicitly highlight that. For example in Kenya, our programs with youth and local philanthropy strengthen bonds of pluralistic communities; and in Russia and Portugal, our work with immigrant communities also build cohesion. As it happens, our central goal of ensuring that communities lead their own development has many positive outcomes for society.

Megan McGlynn Scanlon is a Senior Program Officer for Civil Society with the Aga Khan Foundation.