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Building Social Cohesion in South Sudan and Burundi

Building Social Cohesion in South Sudan and Burundi

Citation: Liaga, E. A., & Wielenga, C. (2020). Social cohesion from the top-down or bottom-up? The cases of South Sudan and Burundi. Peace & Change, 45(3), 389-425.

Talking Points

In the context of South Sudan and Burundi:

  • Social cohesion is best facilitated when bottom-up and top-down efforts—local, national, and international—are integrated and responsive to the relational nature of these societies.
  • Despite the attention paid to top-down social cohesion interventions, resources already exist at the community level—such as social networks and traditional conflict resolution mechanisms—to facilitate bottom-up social cohesion.
  • Since politicians may continue to manipulate differences for political gain, integrating top-down and bottom-up approaches is necessary to make these political communities more resilient to such attempts and to help them sustain peace.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

To address current polarization in the U.S. that is veering dangerously toward violence, activists can look to and build on resources that already exist at the community level for fostering social cohesion, while also creating linkages between these grassroots bridging initiatives/institutions and middle- and high-level political leadership.


The question of how to build—or rebuild—a society that can stick together looms large in the wake of violent conflict. Sustainable peace requires at least minimal social cohesion among previously polarized groups. Although top-down, elite-led statebuilding efforts have been emphasized in the past, grassroots, bottom-up efforts at social cohesion have garnered more attention recently. With a particular focus on South Sudan and Burundi—two countries with significant histories of violent conflict—authors Emmaculate Asige Liaga and Cori Wielenga critically examine both “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to fostering social cohesion. Drawing primarily on interviews from 2011 to 2018 with local and international NGOs, they argue that social cohesion is best facilitated when bottom-up and top-down efforts—local, national, and international—are integrated and responsive to the relational nature of these societies.

Social cohesion: “how well people in a society ‘cohere’ or stick together.” A cohering community is one where people 1) trust one another, 2) “help one another and cooperate with one another,” and 3) “share a common sense of belonging, which is manifested in their behavior.”

Authors’ paraphrasing of the definition provided in Chan, J., To, H.-P., & Chan, E. (2006). Reconsidering social cohesion: Developing a definition and analytical framework for empirical research. Social Indicators Research, 75(2), 273-302.

Top-down approaches (to social cohesion): are state-centric and often not responsive to local needs, instead focusing on a formulaic transformation of war-torn societies into democracies with liberal market economies and all the requisite institutions. Peace agreements meant to facilitate social cohesion often meet challenges in implementation. Resources allocated do not necessarily reach local communities.

Bottom-up approaches (to social cohesion): entail communities affected by conflict building their capacities to “more effectively develop and voice their own diagnoses of the problems they faced, and to challenge and transform the wider relations and structures in which violence is embedded.” The assumption here is that “those who have borne the brunt of the violence, and must live with its effects, are in the best position to devise appropriate solutions and responses to repair their communities.” May entail return to “traditional” conflict resolution mechanisms and the “re-establish[ment] [of] contact between individuals, families, and communities to rebuild social harmony.”

Key to the authors’ argument is the contention that both South Sudan and Burundi are “relational” societies—societies “held together through complex social and relational networks,” where healthy relations (among human beings, as well as between humans and their ancestors and the natural world) are valued for the harmony and wellbeing of the community. Additionally, in both countries, “informal governance processes and conflict resolution mechanisms hold high levels of legitimacy.” While the authors therefore center the rebuilding of relationships and the often-overlooked spiritual/metaphysical dimension of this process, they also assert that “bottom-up approaches alone cannot achieve social cohesion”—hence the focus on how “facilitated top-down and organic bottom-up cohesion… might be integrated.”

South Sudan

What began as ideological differences and power struggles among the political elite in South Sudan developed into divisions and ultimately civil war between their respective ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. The record of top-down social cohesion efforts in South Sudan has been mixed. While the international community has been involved in counterproductive interventions, it has also supported social cohesion through training and capacity building, mediation, humanitarian aid, and development projects. Likewise, while the government’s many failed ceasefires and peace deals illustrate the shortcomings of top-down efforts alone, the government also initiated a National Dialogue process in 2017, creating “a space where the citizens [could] take part in the national reconciliation process… linking the national, regional, and grassroots levels.” The current peace process, begun in 2018, is fragile but holding.

Beyond the macro-level Dinka/Nuer split, there have also been “multiple resource, power, and identity-based conflicts” that the government has failed to manage, pointing to the importance of bottom-up efforts. Central to these are customary leaders who have “a high level of social-cultural influence… presiding over cases of divorce, land issues, and water point conflicts,” as well as traditional justice mechanisms like compensation through payment by cattle to settle conflicts. Religious leaders have also played a key role “speak[ing] against the violence and war crimes,” implementing community-level dialogues, providing shelter for those escaping violence, creating models of ethnic coexistence—and, significantly, organizing a critical multi-level reconciliation conference in 1999, including everyone from grassroots community members to mid-level church leaders and Dinka and Nuer chiefs to top-level political leaders.


Although violence in Burundi has been largely driven by conflict among the political elite, it has also taken on ethnic dimensions between Tutsi and Hutu. More recently, since the 2000 Arusha Agreement and ensuing peace process, the national-level conflict has centered around tension between the ruling party and the opposition, rather than along ethnic lines. At the grassroots level, the main conflicts involve land, especially since so many people fled the country during the various waves of violence and then have been repatriated.

Beyond top-down international social cohesion efforts, including the Arusha negotiations, the primary national approach to social cohesion has been the creation of the Vision 2025 document. It emphasizes the “importance of social cohesion… for growth and development” and highlights the key role played by traditional conflict resolution mechanisms and cultural practices—like “Burundian dance, folktales, literature, poetry, and drama”—in building this social cohesion.

Bottom-up efforts include strong local emphasis on such traditional mechanisms and practices, such as elder-led conflict resolution processes. Additionally, several NGOs focus on peace and reconciliation, some with a very wide reach. Key initiatives and impacts include the reintegration of rebels and the cultivation of critical thinking among Burundians, helping them see not only how political elites manipulate ethnic identity but also how much Burundians have in common, especially in their shared suffering due to violence and poverty. Indeed, it appears that “deep cultural values,” as well as the necessity of interdependence to survival, hold Burundians together and also shape their response to transitional justice mechanisms proposed by the international community and the government, largely favoring dialogue and reintegration over truth-telling and accountability.

Despite the attention paid to top-down social cohesion interventions in both countries, resources already exist at the community level—such as social networks and traditional conflict resolution mechanisms—to facilitate bottom-up social cohesion. Since politicians may continue to manipulate differences for political gain, however, integrating these top-down and bottom-up approaches is necessary to make these political communities more resilient to such attempts and to help them sustain peace.

Informing Practice

Trust. Cooperation. A common sense of belonging. These are not the sentiments that come to mind when considering the current state of U.S. society. Growing polarization, matched with easy access to guns, is even starting to intensify violence between groups who lack any sense of common identity. Those of us in the U.S have our work cut out for us when it comes to rebuilding some semblance of social cohesion. What can we learn from countries building social cohesion after violent conflict to help us prevent such large-scale violence in the first place?

Although the U.S. differs in significant ways from South Sudan and Burundi—not least in its embrace of individualism over community—there are still key insights to be gained and applied from this research. First, we can seek out resources that already exist at the community level for building social cohesion, whether local leaders, traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, or cultural values and practices. In the U.S. context, these may look different depending on the local community in question, but they could include anyone from town council members to religious leaders and anything from Native American talking circles to long-running community events like parades or harvest festivals—institutions and places where diverse community members already come together, which can form the basis for strengthened connections. If these are already segregated by political or other identity, then the first step is to intentionally invite those from another group to participate, however tentative or uncomfortable their arrival might be at first, and to build on that relationship over time.

Second, this research reminds us just how fragile these connections can be if they are being assaulted daily by calculating politicians who are trying to create and manipulate divisions for personal gain. The authors suggest that integrating bottom-up and top-down social cohesion efforts can help make communities more resilient to such political manipulation. What would or does this integration look like in the U.S. context? In the South Sudanese context, the authors point to multi-level dialogues as successful examples of such integration—processes where regular people at the grassroots are consulted for their input on grievances and needs and ideas for addressing these but where mid-level community and religious leaders and high-level political officials also endorse and participate in the process to ensure that its findings are recognized and implemented. Could something like this be instituted in the U.S. in such a way that state- and national-level political party leaders would not be able to ignore the legitimacy of the process—and, crucially, where the process itself would entail cross-cutting working groups on different issues of concern, each including members from opposite ends of the political spectrum? In fact, the seeds of this sort of work are already being planted by numerous “bridging” organizations (see Living Room Conversations, Braver Angels, Urban Rural Action, and Hands Across the Hills, in addition to many others) that have been cultivating conversations and problem-solving across political, geographical, and other divides in the U.S. since before, and now during, the pandemic. As these grassroots efforts grow, they also gain power and political voice and can begin to integrate their efforts with top-level political leadership. For instance, Braver Angels co-founder Bill Doherty recommends redesigning congressional town halls such that conservative and liberal constituents can identify common ground on local concerns and share these ideas with congressional representatives. More reflection is needed, however, on other ways to institutionalize these sorts of vertical links between grassroots efforts and national-level political leadership. In the meantime, the bridging conversations and relationships themselves help make socially cohesive communities more resilient to manipulation and especially calls to violence, as individuals humanize one another and realize that they share common concerns and have similar needs even if they default to very different policies for addressing them. In the end, the differences will remain, but differences manifest in a wholly new way in the context of trust, cooperation, and shared belonging. [MW]

Questions Raised

  • What does or could the integration of top-down and bottom-up social cohesion efforts look like in the U.S. context?
  • How should local leaders, traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, and/or cultural values and practices be identified and employed in the service of social cohesion in contexts marked by broad diversity, where communities may not share the same traditions or cultural values and practices?

Continued Reading

Mohajer, O., & Deng, D. (2021, April 16). South Sudan’s people have spoken on peace. Is anyone listening? United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from

Peace Direct. (2021). Burundi. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from

Blades, J. (2021, March 26). Ripe for change: We have prime opportunity now to protect American democracy. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from

Bubman, J. (2021, April 9). Building bridges without a foundation for peace won’t work. YES! Magazine. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from


Braver Angels:

Living Room Conversations:

Urban Rural Action:

Hands Across the Hills:

Photo credit: NASA Johnson via Flickr

Key Words: social cohesion, South Sudan, Burundi, peacebuilding, traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, top-down peacebuilding, bottom-up peacebuilding, local peacebuilding

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