Horizontal Versus Vertical Social Cohesion: Why the Differences Matter

Social cohesion is an underappreciated but crucial element in development, state building, and poverty reduction.

It is an especially important factor in determining whether a state is fragile or not. As I argued in Fixing Fragile States:

Two factors above all others decide how a country’s political, economic, and societal life evolves: a population’s capacity to cooperate (which depends, for the most part, on the level of social cohesion) and its ability to take advantage of a set of shared, productive institutions (especially informal institutions at the crucial early stages of development when formal institutions are usually feeble and ineffectual). . . . These two ingredients shape how a government interacts with its citizens; how officials, politicians, and businesspeople behave; and how effective foreign efforts to upgrade governance will be. Together with the set of policies adopted by the government, they make up the three major determinants of a country’s capacity to advance.

Fragile states are deficient in both these areas. And the combination of political identity fragmentation and weak national institutions works in a vicious cycle that severely undermines the legitimacy of the state, leading to political orders that are highly unstable and hard to reform.

But social cohesion has rarely attracted the attention it deserves from the development community. Dependent on sociopolitical factors that are hard to measure, analyze, and understand, it holds no prominent place in any international agency’s programming. Like almost everything related to the “software” of how states work, it is all too easily ignored.

This may be changing at least at the margins—in conferences and reports. The World Bank, for instance, is using it to discuss jobs in its forthcoming World Development Report. And the OECD recently published Perspectives on Global Development 2012: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World.

This is progress of a sort, but these conferences and reports are missing something important. Instead of seeing social cohesion as a “complex cultural, psychological and social phenomenon,” as Duncan Green put it on his blog earlier this year, they look at economic issues and technocratic solutions. The OECD report, for instance, promotes redistribution via progressive tax reform and increased and more pro-poor public spending; investment in education; protecting poor people against volatility via social protection and improved labor market institutions such as the minimum wage.

There is nothing particularly wrong with most of this agenda, but it does not get to the heart of the matter. A country with high levels of social cohesion would likely have a leadership with an interest in introducing programs that helped the poor. A country that had little social cohesion would likely have a leadership that had little interest in helping the poor. These proposals matter far less than trying to figure out what affects elite attitudes and what might be done to make elites feel that the poor is “one of us.”

What the development community fails to understand is that there are two distinct types of social cohesion, and it only focuses on one.

“Vertical social cohesion” looks at levels of inequity on the assumption that substantial differences in income are both inherently unfair and damaging to the wellbeing of societies.

“Horizontal social cohesion,” on the other hand, looks at how strong is the “social glue” that ties people to each other on the assumption that feelings of togetherness matter more both to the wellbeing of individuals and to the long-term health of a society.

The development field has no way to grasp the importance of the latter because it does not fit within the paradigm of how development is supposed to work as understood by donors. It has nothing to do with economics, technical training, and governance indicators. It cannot be improved with vaccines, a school building program, or investments in agriculture. And it certainly cannot be measured and tracked over time.

Vertical social cohesion fits nicely with the liberal ethos that most people in the field know. Horizontal social cohesion is much more likely to matter to conservatives, but few of these play an active role in any part of the aid industry. As a result, many things that matter to making states work better—including nation building, religion, and informal institutions—gets short shrift.

But these things are tremendously important, especially in the early stages of development when formal state institutions are weak, and unable to play an important role in economic and political governance.

The countries most successful at promoting development and reducing poverty have been horizontally social cohesive, not vertically so, because of how important this is when governments do not work well. Places like China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the rest of East Asia have improved the lives of over a billion poor people over the past two generations not because they had “good governance,” progressive taxes, or followed a certain policy playbook, but because they had the social glue that lubricated business and encouraged leaders to focus on inclusive development.

Donors have often been befuddled by fragile states, with some even calling them a wicked problem. These difficulties, however, say more about donors than they do about fragile states.

Understanding these places requires understanding their software. The problems they face are more fundamental than other countries—something is wrong with their basic operating system—something than the standard aid tools cannot fix. It requires great creativity in programming to address the structural, psychological, and institutional issues that have produced societies divided against themselves.

Such programming is not easy for organizations that would rather focus on problems at the individual level (the MDGs) and show results within a short timeframe. It requires much more knowledge about societies and patience with long payback periods than donors have, especially today.

Given the growing importance of fragile states, is it not about time the development community focused on the social cohesion that matters most?