Social Cohesion and Forced Displacement: A Desk Review to Inform Programming and Project Design

Joanna P. de Berry and Andrew Roberts

World Bank, June 2018


This study examines the concept of social cohesion as it relates to forced displacement, with a view to enhancing diplomatic, policy and operational responses to address social tensions associated with forced displacement. The review comprises three parts:

  • A review of literature on the conceptualization of social cohesion: There is no consensus on what constitutes social cohesion. Recent definitions highlight several dimensions of social cohesion: (a) belonging/isolation; (b) inclusion/exclusion; (c) participation/non-involvement; (d) recognition/ rejection; and (e) legitimacy/illegitimacy. Definitions are informed by Intergroup Threat Theory, which attempts to explain how perceived threats lead to prejudice and antagonism between social groups. The authors outline three indexes of social cohesion, comprising horizontal (intergroup) and vertical (person-state) indicators. Much of the literature originates in Europe or North America and focuses on the impact of minority groups on social majorities, and the relationship between integration and social cohesion. Additional indicators are needed for particular displacement contexts.
  • A review of literature on the impacts of forced displacement on social cohesion: There are several factors that mediate social relations in the context of forced displacement including: perceptions of identity; preexisting relationships between displaced and host communities; capacity/readiness of communities to host displaced people; duration of displacement; perceived/real disparities between different groups affected by forced displacement; patterns of settlement; and pre-existing stressors including national and regional conflict dynamics. The specific context determines how these factors interact and play out, and so social cohesion must be understood as part of the wider social fabric. Still, forced displacement can exaggerate social tensions, and the literature suggests that in societies with rigid relationships and social identities, there is less capacity to maintain social cohesion under conditions of rapid change such as forced displacement. Issues of return and repatriation are largely absent in the literature. The literature is also weak in acknowledging that the composition of ‘local’ groups can vary and change.
  • A review of the Bank’s portfolio of forced displacement projects: A review of 30 projects found a number of gaps: (a) lack of clear definition of social cohesion; (b) lack of systematic identification of existing social cohesion challenges; (c) lack of analysis of the political and historical context that determines social relations; (d) lack of coherence in project design, with a tendency to be over-optimistic about the extent to which a project can promote social cohesion; and (e) lack of monitoring and evaluation to establish influences on social tensions. Project design tends to be based on the assumptions that: (i) addressing inequity in service provision between host and displaced persons will produce social cohesion; and (ii) community driven development can foster collective action and solidarity. However, theories of change remain obscure and little monitoring and evaluation has been undertaken to assess the validity of these assumptions.

The authors recommend:

  • Applying a simple definition of social cohesion (e.g. “the set of relationships between individuals and groups in a particular environment and between those individuals and groups and the institutions that govern them in a particular environment”).
  • Investing in a nuanced political economy study and historical analysis.
  • Taking a longer-term strategic approach to supporting social cohesion, which incorporates measurement and assessment of the social cohesion context via social cohesion indices, such as those used in the SCORE and UNDP initiatives.
  • Incorporate indicators of: propensity to collective action (including perhaps peaceful protest, violent protests, self-defense); pervasiveness and effect of perceptions of ethnic or other identity-based bias; indicators of identity; threat perception; trust in institutions (particularly judicial, security); and perceived threat over access to resources.