The growing number of conflict zones around the world highlights the need to better understand the dynamics of social cohesion, especially for preserving peace-time progress in developing countries. In our work, the term social cohesion refers to the process of strengthening communities so people can work together to resolve shared challenges in a way that promotes a sense of trust, peace, and security. In Central Asia, understanding how social cohesion works in the Kyrgyz Republic became especially important after a 2010 wave of ethnic violence erupted in the southern part of the country.

By partnering together on the Social Cohesion Through Community-Based Development project, theAga Khan Foundation U.S.A. (AKF USA) and the World Bank hope to assess how local participation and community engagement affect social cohesion, especially in post-conflict, multi-ethnic communities. Examining development activities in the Kyrgyz Republic, the project will study how a participatory approach to development planning influences a community’s cohesion. (See the press release for background on the project.)

Earlier this summer, AKF USA and the World Bank convened experts in the fields of conflict resolution, social cohesion, and community-driven development to discuss social cohesion and development in Washington, DC and in Bishkek and Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Participants shared their experiences with projects in Central and Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. Following these learning sessions, three main ideas emerged as particularly important for our Kyrgyz project going forward:

One: The Process for Participation Matters, but So Does Development Activity

In our project’s theory of change, one hypothesis is that social change comes more through the process of participation rather than the specific activity decided to be undertaken by the community. We posit that participation by different groups on a shared development priority may affect cohesion more positively than specific activities and their outcomes. In some cases, specific community-selected activities may not positively impact cohesion, even if the process brought together various groups. For example, building a school could have more equitable effects across groups than building a road, because access to the road’s benefits might more easily be skewed. Even with this hypothesis, others’ experience and research shows that the final product decided upon by the community also matters, and some types of collective activities may impact cohesion more than others.

This raises questions for our project: How do we measure social cohesion? Does it involve a high participation rate at local meetings, or is it more important to assess a shift from attitudes to behavior? Stakeholder mapping (for example, showing easy-to-reach vs. hard-to-reach households) could point to gaps in the project’s participation process. In the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, for example, hard-to-reach veterans who had not been brought into the process early became spoilers later.

Two: The Importance of Youth and Gender

Youth can be the demographic most at-risk in conflict settings. Research also shows that the greatest positive response to social cohesion efforts in past projects was often among young people. The pattern of destruction in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 showed targeted use of recently armed youth, which highlights the need for this project to consider and analyze how youth perceive, support, and discourage cohesion. As household surveys are completed, our project researchers will question youths aged 14-18 about attitudes and behaviors that can show changes in social cohesion throughout the life of the project. Alongside measuring the change in youth perceptions and beliefs, the project will also consider the different needs of men and women in building social cohesion. Given the high levels of migration to Russia and neighboring countries by both men and women in Kyrgyzstan, understanding and addressing needs specific to different groups will be very important.

Three: Innovations in Measuring Cohesion – Development Games

Several participants noted innovative approaches to monitoring changes in cohesion, including examples of behavioral games. As the project begins full implementation in early 2015, the research team will examine innovative approaches, including the possibility of development games. As we hold more learning sessions throughout the project, we hope to learn about other innovative approaches to measuring changing cohesion.

Aly Rahim, Social Development Specialist at the Bank, concluded the meeting in Washington by noting the benefits of bringing together such a broad range of experience that provided positive and interesting suggestions for our project. Such meetings, whether they occur in Washington or Central Asia, allow us to gather insights from others doing similar work, which often is not fully captured in desk reviews of past project documents.

In the coming years, AKF USA and its partners, including the University of Central Asia, the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, look forward to future learning gatherings and sharing findings that come out of the project. To learn more about this project, please also see our “Social Cohesion in Kyrgyzstan through a Participatory Lens” blog post.