Social Cohesion



As state cohesion is a major predictor of state effectiveness, more emphasis should be placed on measures that unify disparate peoples in fragile states. This is especially important in countries where multiple identity groups are not concentrated in particular areas but are spread throughout the country, making it pointless to introduce federalism and other territorially based institutional arrangements. In such countries, programs should be adopted that create stronger social and cultural bonds across groups, that institutionalize cooperation, and that promote reconciliation where there has been a history of intergroup hostility.

Some states have found a unifying force—such as Swahili in Tanzania, a unique Islamic heritage in Senegal, a state-backed ideology in Syria, or a charismatic leader as Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire—to bridge their geographical, historical, and identity divides. But the unity based on such forces can prove fleeting, whereas the process of institutionalizing a sense of common identity and common formal structures can take generations. Thus, for instance, despite Houphouët-Boigny’s popularity in his day, Côte d’Ivoire descended into civil war in the years after his demise.

In states containing combustible mixes of identity groups living side by side, formal bodies should be designed to institutionalize cross-group cooperation and to minimize the potential for ethnic, religious, tribal, or clan divisions sparking verbal or violent conflict that undermines the state. Instead of simply promoting elections as the key to progress, divided countries need to create a secure and unified environment before introducing change, which should they proceed gradually. Iraq shows what can happen when cross-group trust completely breaks down.

There are various ways to institutionalize cooperation in these settings. A national security council could bring together leaders of each major group within a state to make major decisions and to police the media, schools, politicians, and religious figures to ensure that no inflammatory language or action threatened intergroup peaceful coexistence. Various forms of political engineering could also help. For instance, political systems could be designed to ensure that parties are large, inclusive, and broad-based (i.e., that they bring together various interests and identity groups) by limiting their number and requiring that each secure a certain minimum level of support in each province, as Somaliland has, or by requiring that they establish branches in a certain minimum proportion of provinces and garner a minimum number of seats in legislatures, as Indonesia has. Forms of consociational government, such as those in Switzerland, Belgium, and Burundi, could mandate coalitions of all groups and wide representation in cabinets, civil services, legislatures, and the military, reducing tensions by lessening or eliminating actual or perceived imbalances. Similarly, apportioning the profits from natural resources in a fair and transparent manner, ensuring that social spending is impartially distributed, and reducing economic inequities between rival groups would dispel some of the potential for friction in divided polities.

Celebrating each identity group’s distinctiveness while attempting to build a “nation of nations” is more likely to succeed than trying to build a state by denying existing social identities, something all too common today. Fostering strong “we” feelings through various educational, sports, and cultural programs can foster complementary or multiple cultural identities that strengthen national bonds, diminishing intergroup frictions in the process. South Africa, for example, has creatively used sports since the end of the apartheid era to unite its fissiparous peoples. Greater access to television can help foster a sense of unity by promoting a common national popular culture while showcasing differences with other states.

Settling border disputes would help to bolster national identities by strengthening citizen loyalty to the state. Many fragile states resist finalizing their boundaries because they are unwilling to accept the territorial status quo, but this only weakens their cohesion while strengthening irredentist and secessionist tendencies on both sides of the frontier.


For more information, see:

Horizontal Inequities

By Frances Stewart


The Rise of “State-Nations

By Alfred Stepan, Juan J. Linz, and Yogendra Yadav


Building Social Cohesion in Fragile States

By Seth Kaplan


El Salvador’s Story: El Salvador’s progress on governance: Negotiation, Political Inclusion and Post-war Transition  

By Dan Harris and Marta Foresti


Social Cohesion, Institutions, and Growth  

By William Easterly, Jozef Ritzan, and Michael Woolcock


Do Inclusive Elite Bargains Matter? A Research Framework for Understanding the Causes of Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Stefan Lindemann