In economics, philosophy and sociology, the term ‘common good’ refers to that which is shared and beneficial for all members of a society. For decades Guyana has struggled to minimize the dominance of politically instigated and instituted distrust among our people. Historically the ‘divide and rule’ strategy is nothing new. In fact, it has been used time and time again by local political parties, companies seeking to weaken labour unions and by instigators that seek to turn people against people or people against the State.
Numerous divide and rule strategies such as the ‘sacred cow strategy’ whereby a party seeking to cause distrust and violence among people provides something of value (the sacred cow) that automatically increases the wealth and by consequence the power imbalance among local groups. This ultimately weakens the capacity of locals to collectively resist their collective demise and subjugation. During the days of slavery, there were often times, conflicts between slaves assigned to work in the house and those that worked in the field due to the privileges of the former.
In Guyana, the colonialists made it very difficult for freed Africans to acquire capital (especially land) and to self-organize, as compared to the opportunities for indentured servants to acquire and develop agricultural land and practice cultural traditions, for example. As Guyanese, we fell right into the trap -- a trap of internal latent conflict, facilitated by colonial devised, ‘divide and rule’ strategies which were subsequently used by Guyana’s two main political parties to secure, maintain and apply political power, even if it was detrimental to the well-being of the collective or segments of Guyanese society. In summary, Guyana’s own version of ‘divide and rule’ has resulted in our two largest population groups voting on the basis of perceived group affiliation to a particular party, episodes of politically instigated inter-group violence, economic marginalization and as Professor Ivelaw Griffith stated in an interview, a phenomenon in which Guyanese ‘mingle but don’t mix.’
More recently our society has observed the politicization of social cohesion. In other words, public views have been expressed that social cohesion seeks to undermine the political support of Party A and increase the support of Party B. Some have even added that social cohesion threatens cultural traditions and must be resisted. So what exactly is social cohesion and why is it important to Guyana’s prosperity and national development?
Roberto Fao (2015) in his report, The Economic Rationale for Social Cohesion – The Cross-country Evidence defines a socially cohesive society as one “in which institutions exist that foster norms of cooperation between distinct ethnic, religious and other identity groups, including non-discrimination, such as in the labor or capital market; and non-violence, whether it be via a low-level, spontaneous communal conflict such as riots, assassinations and pogroms (Varshney 2003, Brass 2006, Wilkinson 2004), or more institutionalized forms of inter-group struggle.”
Generally speaking, social cohesion is comprised of three dimensions:
(1) Social capital – refers to the networks and relationships among people in a given society which enable it to function effectively. There are two types of relationships often referred to in social capital literature, bonding – inter-group relationships and bridging -- intra-group relationships;
(2) Social inclusion – the ability and opportunity for individuals to participate in society, especially marginalized groups and
(3) Social mobility – the capacity and movement of individuals, households, families and other types of groups to advance – horizontally or vertically - their social standing.
The benefits and indicators of a socially cohesive society usually include increased economic prosperity, better health outcomes, more productive communities and higher levels of education, while low levels of social cohesion correlate with increased instances of violence and under-development.
Moreover, Professor Jeffery Reitz notes that “Social fragmentation [the opposite of social cohesion] is linked to negative population outcomes (e.g. ghettoization, poor health outcomes, and crime), whereas social cohesion is linked to positive population outcomes (e.g. healthy, educated, and productive communities.”
The impact of social cohesion on national development is such an important research interest that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) facilitates numerous studies, regional and international conferences to share research findings and examine policy implications. Furthermore, the European Union has set up a European Committee on Social Cohesion and numerous other regional organisations and States have undertaken similar efforts.
So, if stronger social cohesion correlates to better societal outcomes, then, why is it being politicized and why in the political and by extension, national governance realms placing greater emphasis on the experiences and topics that divide instead of unite us? Why would we prefer a society and political alliance that seeks to undermine inter-group relationships to the detriment of the masses and benefits of a few? The simple answer is that we place too much emphasis on maintaining perceived indicators of cultural differences which have come to include ethno-racial political alliances. There is a fear of ‘too much mixing’, rather than a healthy appreciation of the ‘common good’ which incidentally could result in greater prosperity and well-being across Guyana.
In the Strategy for Social Cohesion in Europe, the Council of Europe notes that “No society is fully cohesive. Social cohesion is an ideal to be striven for rather than a goal capable of being fully achieved. It constantly needs to be nurtured, improved and adapted. Each generation has to find afresh a manageable equilibrium of forces. This is a constantly shifting equilibrium which has to adapt to changes in the social and economic environment, in technology and in national and international political systems. Social cohesion is not only a matter of combating social exclusion and poverty. It is also about creating solidarity in society such that exclusion will be minimized.”
Many advanced economies including Canada, Europe and the United States have succeeded in using diversity as a human capital strength and in drawing economic benefits from it. One variable that differentiates these major economies driven by very diverse religious, ethnic and other groups is the extent to which they have established and implemented social institutions to leverage and manage diversity toward greater social and economic outcomes.
Are we up to the task in Guyana or will we continually complain about hardships through one side of our mouths while we use the other side to support political leaders and policies that seek to maintain inter-group conflict in exchange for our votes, i.e., political power and the proverbial crumbs that fall on the floor from the master’s table? We have the power to vote-in political parties and leaders and collectively, we also have the power to demand change or seek out new and more productive political representation. As Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, healthy relationships are based on four principles: respect, understanding, acceptance and appreciation.
Heal Guyana is a registered, not-for-profit organisation which functions as a civil society platform that focuses on empowering Guyanese and influencing citizens toward positive behavior change.
The views expressed herein are those of the Author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Heal Guyana or its Executives.