Social and political fragmentation and weak civic and inter-group trust are often characteristics of situations of fragility and violent conflict. Such divisions can contribute to and be an outcome of fragility and conflict. In situations of fragility, political identity, fragmentation and weak state institutions reinforce each other. They undermine state legitimacy and the formation of strong nation-wide governance systems; weaken interpersonal trust; and divide citizens. In situations of violent conflict, processes of ‘othering’ and dehumanisation destroy social relations and networks and leave a legacy of deep mistrust and fear of others. Persistent divisions in the aftermath of conflict result in an unstable peace and the possibility of renewed violence.
Weak social cohesion and distrust also impact negatively on perceptions of political community and on civic action. People are reluctant to engage with the ‘other’, hindering the development of civic engagement and collective action. In addition, fear and insecurity and feelings of powerlessness and marginalisation from conflict can also weaken a sense of individual civic agency. Where the state is involved in violence and repression, whether as a perpetrator, by active complicity or passive omission, such sentiments can be more pronounced.
In addition to withdrawing from citizenship, citizens may also respond to or cope with violence by establishing parallel governance or security structures. These can further weaken the legitimacy of state institutions and exacerbate inter-group divisions where such parallel structures cater solely to specific groups.
It is important for statebuilding and peacebuilding efforts to take into account and to understand the role of state weakness and state and private violence in limiting civic agency and undermining socio-political cohesion. Efforts are needed to ensure that citizens can relate to each other in civil or non-violent ways and to foster a national identity that transcends divisions.
Kaplan, S., 2009, ‘Identity in Fragile States: Social Cohesion and State building’, Development, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 466-472
What role does identity play in determining a state’s robustness? This article argues that the relationship between identities, institutions, social cohesion and state legitimacy is critical to understanding social and political progress in fragile states. States that lack a common identity will fail to progress. International actors should support fragile states to develop their own development and state-building strategies, and build on their own capacities for good governance.
Marc, A., Willman, A., Aslam, G., and Rebosio, M., with Balasuriya, K., 2013, ‘Designing policies and programmes to build social cohesion’, Chapter 8 in Societal Dynamics and Fragility. Engaging Societies in Responding to Fragile Situations, World Bank, Washington, D.C.
Viewing fragility through a societal lens means opening up aid beyond the state and addressing social fractures. It requires understanding how groups perceive fairness and justice and developing programmes that are sensitive to those norms. Donors must avoid bringing their own bias about what is fair and just. Interventions that have better connected states and societies have targeted inequality, promoted tolerance, addressed healing and trauma, restored the livelihoods of conflict-affected communities and supported community-driven development. None of these are straightforward or always successful.
Carter, R., 2013, ‘Interventions to increase levels of trust in society’, GSDRC Helpdesk Report no. 941, Birmingham
This report presents illustrative cases of interventions that have involved building and/or measuring trust levels in society in four areas: 1) social accountability, 2) community driven development, 3) tax-related interventions and 4) transformative social protection.
Browne, E., 2013, ‘State Fragility and Social Cohesion’, GSDRC Helpdesk Report no. 1027, Birmingham
This report reviews the relationship between social cohesion and state fragility – focusing on literature from 2010 onwards. There is no clear empirical understanding in the literature of how social cohesion contributes to state resilience or fragility, as it is very difficult to measure, and to assess independently other variables that affect state fragility.
Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability, 2011, ‘Blurring the Boundaries: Citizen Action Across States and Societies’, Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
This report synthesises the findings of ten years of research from the Development Resource Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability. Findings suggest that governments often become more capable, accountable and responsive when state-led reform to strengthen institutions of accountability and social mobilisation occur simultaneously. Further, change happens not just through strategies that work on both sides of the governance supply and demand equation, but also through strategies that work across them: it is important to link champions of change from both state and society.
See further discussion and resources in Chapter 1 (Understanding Violent Conflict) of the Conflict topic guide, on: