The strategic plan for social cohesion

The recently completed Draft Strategic Plan for Social Cohesion in Guyana, 2017-2021 (SP) (http://www.motp.gov.gy/images/documents/draft_social_cohesion_strategis_plan_2017_2021.pdf),  has given enhanced meaning to the notion of ‘missing the bus’!  If not rectified in the final document, what could be an ideal opportunity to attempt something transformative will instead present us with the usual kind of platitudes. The literature review contained in the document suggests that this should not have occurred, but since no serious commitment was made to the establishment of an appropriate political framework, the promises contained in the plan are but banalities.

I believe we can all agree that a socially cohesive society is one in which there exist ‘a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities; the diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued; those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighborhoods’ (Cantle, T. (2005) Community Cohesion: A New Framework for Race and Diversity. Palgrave MacMillan).

We are told in the SP that the ‘idea to formulate a Strategic Plan emerged during a multi-stakeholder roundtable on ͞Social Cohesion for Lasting Peace and Unity’, which was intended to serve ‘… as a vital mechanism through which citizen perspectives, ideas and recommendations can be presented to support identification of key issues, opportunities and best practices in bringing an ethnically divided society together.’

Depending upon one’s purpose, social cohesion has been variously defined as a ‘condition’, an ‘element’, i.e. the glue that holds society together, and as a ‘process’. The SP states that it ‘is a progressive process of enhancing social interaction, integration and harmony within and across the various social groups in Guyana by forging and reinforcing strong families, community and national values, in order to enhance and sustain socioeconomic, cultural and spiritual well-being and enriched livelihoods for all.’

However, defined, a difficulty with the concept is its omnibus nature, namely that fault lines across social class, religion, race, ethnicity, urban and rural disparities, etc. can all weaken social cohesion. Unless one is very careful, the concept’s scope and vagueness limit its capacity to facilitate a focus on the fundamental problem that gave rise to the Plan – race and ethnicity in a divided Guyana. In my view, this latitude is precisely what – deliberately or otherwise -contributes to the SP being able to camouflage the fact that it has largely missed its essential mark!

The literature review raises but fails to adequately address its main objective. From the many excellent texts on social cohesion, the drafters chose to review Defining and Measuring Social Cohesion by Jane Jenson. Jenson claimed that social cohesion is a ‘quasi-concept’, which, according to the SP ‘is one that is based on an analysis of the data of a particular situation, which makes it relatively realistic and scientifically legitimate; and at the same time, it is sufficiently vague, which makes it adaptable to various situations and flexible enough to inform policy and political actions.’ However, in a work earlier than that quoted in the SP, speaking of the orientation of the concept towards ‘policy and political actions’, Jenson claimed that social cohesion ‘is primarily used to mask growing social inequalities’ (http://omiss.ca/english/reference/pdf/pbernard.pdf).

As an illustration of this, Paul Bernard told an instructive story of a factory manager who, in response to changes in market conditions, exhorted the workers to unite to save the company and their jobs. However, ‘The common concern with productivity and loyalty to the company became the condition for prosperity [but] … [t]here was no consideration … for the workers in the other plants who would lose their jobs if his plant survived. Nor was there any mention of the downward pressure on salaries and working conditions exerted on the factory workers, … And there was even less question of what justified the differences in benefits between the various categories of workers’ (Ibid). This, he argues, is precisely how the demand of social cohesion usually plays out.

Taken generally and in our situation, the main question should be what would it take to make the hundreds of sugar workers who are faced with redundancy or public servants/teachers who believe they are not paid a living wage pay much attention to elite discourses about social cohesion? In Guyana’s bicommunal type environment where ethnic entrepreneurs abound, the situation is even more complex.

When Africans are in power they may be dissatisfied but will be very reluctant to rock the boat while the Indians will be encouraged to go for the full pound of flesh, and vice versa.

What this suggests is that social cohesion cannot be built without some clear collective acceptance that fairness should prevail, and this will not be the case without mechanisms to convince the various communities that their best interest is being safeguarded.

Unless I missed something, the SP does not address this issue in a substantial manner and what makes this much stranger is that this omission takes place in a context where another of the reviewed works more or less specifically identified this problem. William Easterly et al. in Social Cohesion, Institutions, and Growth, wrote, ‘Where such common identity is missing opportunistic politicians do exploit differences to build up a power base. It only takes one such opportunistic politician to exacerbate division; because once such ethnic group is politically mobilized along ethnic lines other groups will͟.’

Although it recognised this behaviour is prevalent in Guyana, the SP failed to properly theorize these indications and therefore missed a glorious opportunity to encourage the establishment of the appropriate consensus-building governance mechanisms. This would require constitutional reform to change the course of governance in Guyana, and here the SP merely tells us that it will ‘Advocate for, and play a leading role in, promoting constitutional changes as per the inputs received from the focus group encounters.’ And hopefully ‘address this tendency to capture, pervert and thereby weaken state and other institutions.’

Since from the inception the matter was not properly conceptualized, when one proceeds to the policy recommendations to build ‘trust, understanding, caring, sharing and support’, not surprisingly, the SP promised, among countless other things, support for ‘community-level economic activities focusing on self-employed, … Strengthened and joint planning for the annual Republic and Independence Observances … Sensitization interventions on stigma and discrimination, social exclusion, and accepting and valuing diversity … Skills training activities such as construction skills, craft-making, sewing, cooking, pastry making.’ Without an appropriate operational framework, mere platitudes!

henryjeffrey@yahoo.com

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