It is precisely the local level that plays an important role in promoting social cohesion, and this role does not only consist in funding relevant projects.
What is the strategic role?
According to Wilhelm Heitmeyer’s theory of social disintegration, discriminatory violence, right-wing extremism, racism, and ethno-cultural conflict arise as a result of an experience of disintegration and fears of downward social mobility. Simultaneously, an increasing disintegration leads to a reduced ability to regulate such violence and conflict. On the one hand, local authorities and institutions face a special challenge, as we have shown in the first blog of this series; on the other hand, they are particularly suited to prevent or counter social division.
Social cohesion, its lack or existence, is felt strongest in the individual environment, i.e. on the local level. The strategic role of municipalities directly arises from this fact, as they are the first to become aware of or notice problems or changes for the worse because of their close ties to the public. Their precise knowledge of places and local situations allows them to take timely and targeted measures to promote inclusion. Also, we should not underestimate the exemplary function of local authorities and institutions. By setting the agenda through public statements or non-material and financial support of initiatives and prevention networks, they are not only able to raise awareness for the dangers of social division, but also to create an atmosphere of respect for diversity in a community. Unfortunately, municipalities all too often are unaware of their own strategic importance.
More than one project aiming to integrate refugees – one example of many
In the second blog of this series, we showed that due to its complexity, the prevention of and fight against discriminatory violence demands diverse approaches and measures, and, most importantly, networking on all levels. One of the initiatives submitted in the context of the EFUS-led and EU-funded project Just and Safer Cities for All was the project “Welcome Human! in Groß Gerungs – Langschlag”. It stands for many similar initiatives that respond to a lack of municipal measures to guarantee material, social and individual safety.
The association of the same name was founded in autumn 2015, when the announcement that lodgings for asylum seekers were to be built in the Lower Austrian municipality of Groß Gerungs (appr. 4,500 inhabitants) caused alarm among the population, and “no sufficient measures for the integration of the refugees were to be expected from the authorities”, according to the presentation of the motives leading to the creation of the association. Starting from the goal of avoiding conflict and integrating the newcomers seeking protection as quickly as possible, the association, which by now has more than one hundred members, supports the asylum seekers in their daily lives (e.g. by helping them find accommodation, accompanying them to the authorities and on doctors’ visits, or by facilitating German language acquisition), it organises workshops for them to familiarise themselves with Austrian culture and also leisure activities where locals and refugees can get to know each other, or “exchange initiatives”, where refugees can for example exchange free German lessons for gardening. However, “Welcome Human! in Groß Gerungs – Langschlag” is also conscious of the danger to peaceful coexistence posed by misgivings and fears amongst local residents, their lack of information and involvement, or for instance rumours. In regular events, the association therefore informs the residents of the two municipalities of Groß Gerungs and Langschlag of the progress of its activities, taking this opportunity to discuss concerns. This process of discussion with the residents made them aware of support needs amongst local residents, which resulted in the association’s expanding its offer to needy residents.
An essential pillar of the association’s work is the voluntary commitment of its members as well as a close cooperation with local businesses and initiatives. In spite of continuing fears in parts of the resident population, and in spite of a lack of support from politics and the administration, the association’s overall balance is positive: they successfully contributed to a less conflict-ridden coexistence. In particular, they emphasise that learning from each other and gradually getting used to a multicultural society do take place. While the association detects first signs of a rethink within municipal policy, would in general a sustainable improvement of coexistence would demand a clear commitment to diversity and more involvement on the part of the municipalities.
The fourth and last blog will focus on recommendations for the strengthening of the strategic role of local and regional authorities in promoting social cohesion.
This article is the third in a series of contributions from the IKF‘s “Just and Safer Cities for All” project.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS’
Helga Amesberger and Birgitt Haller are senior researchers at the Institute of Conflict Research in Vienna which is partner of the CPD cluster. Research on integration/ social inclusion and on prejudice is among the institute’s main fields of activities.