Ever since the APNU/AFC coalition government launched a “Social Cohesion” Ministry in May 2015, the country has been trying to figure out what is the remit of the Ministry, headed by longstanding Executive of the PNC Amna Ali. It was thought a Roundtable Discussion at the Arthur Chung Convention Centre last September would have cleared up the uncertainty in the promised “Five-year Strategic Plan for Social Cohesion” that was to emanate from the discussions. Sadly, the public is still to see the plan.
Back in the early years of the new millennium, the local office of the UNDP conducted an extensive programme under the rubric of increasing “social cohesion” to head off open ethnic conflict in the general elections scheduled for 2006. After the elections of 1997 and 2001, the PNC had disputed the internationally certified results and in the aftermath of mass street protests, ethnic violence had ensued. The UNDP’s activity comprised largely of facilitating “dialogue” between individuals, organisations, communities and political leaders across the ethnic divide so as to develop “trust” in the system.
Social cohesion, from this perspective could then be seen as creating a societal condition that helps its members not to resort to violence if they disagree even on important issues such as the results of general elections. This conclusion is supported by the literature on social cohesion as it is relevant to “divided societies”. One formulation describes social cohesion as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper.”
The authors conclude, “Social cohesion is said to be high when nearly all members of a society voluntarily “play by the rules of the game,” and when tolerance for differences is demonstrated in the day-to-day interactions across social groups within that society.” One of the challenges of importing models of social engineering however, from other countries is to ensure that the concepts are not foisted on the local players without considering their relevance to local conditions.
The concept of social cohesion has been around since the beginning of sociology over a century ago, when Emile Durkheim proposed that lack of social cohesion could lead to a feeling of rootlessness or “anomie” in the members of the society which could precipitate dysfunctional behaviours such as suicide. But most of the work on social cohesion has been done in the developed countries especially the US, EU, Canada and Australia during the last three decades after new immigrants with new attitudes towards jettisoning their identity created strains to their social order.
Our situation in Guyana, while it may be due to our several ethnic groups not being cohesive enough to focus on a national effort to develop the country, has its roots in totally different circumstance. For one, our major groups are much more equal in numbers and the words “minorities” and “majorities” have to be used with caution. Additionally, our groups arrived over a century and a half ago, and have very firm notions about the legitimacy of their group claims.
But notwithstanding the differences with other approaches towards achieving greater social cohesion, all the studies insist the policies of the government in all its activities must be coherent so as to achieve its goal of national development.
From this perspective of coherence, the Ministry of the Presidency’s recent announcement that it will issue a Draft Strategic Plan for ministries is troubling. The announcement insists government activities would proceed on “the principles of sustainable development, protection of the environment, and respecting labour policies.” These are not Ipso facto consistent with the goal of social cohesion.