The Symposium

Social isolation significantly impacts individual and community health, well-being, livelihoods, and resilience, and yet few programmes and policies currently address this issue directly.

Isolation is the feeling of sitting alone at the bottom of a well. Connectedness is the feeling of belonging. Social isolation prevents individuals and communities from the power to flourish. Social connectedness presents individuals and communities with the power to flourish. – Kim Samuel

Although social isolation has been identified as a potential cause and consequence of multidimensional poverty worldwide, its impact and importance continue to be under-recognized by programme designers and policymakers working with vulnerable populations. In recent years, a handful of organizations have begun to explore and address the issue of social isolation head on, but much more remains to be done.

There are many individuals and groups in every part of the world where social isolation is prevalent, including those with intellectual and physical disabilities, people living in poverty, marginalized communities such as the First Nations (Indigenous peoples in Canada), children affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis in Southern Africa, people coping with mental health challenges, the elderly, people suffering human rights abuses, and people who live in geographically isolated places or in crowded cities and similarly feel disconnected and alone. Similarly, people who don’t identify with any marginalized group or community at all may nonetheless experience the pain and stigma of isolation.

The Symposium Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness was the first global gathering on this topic. It brought together an extraordinary network of global leaders, thinkers, practitioners, educators, policy-shapers and journalists with powerful experiences and expertise related to isolation and social connectedness. The aim of the symposium was to launch a global movement around these issues. Symposium participants shared state-of-the field research, exchanged experiences about the best approaches to enhance social connectedness, and helped build an inspired community of practice.

The symposium was convened by the Samuel Family Foundation, the Synergos Institute/Synergos Canada, and TakingITGlobal in partnership with Special Olympics International, Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) at the University of Oxford, Community Foundations of Canada, and Evergreen. Participation was limited to 100 individuals, chosen from around the world.

Participants included Zainab Salbi of Women for Women International; Timothy Shriver of Special Olympics International; First Nations leaders Chief Shawn Atleo and Chief Ovide Mercredi; Sabina Alkire of the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI); Matthew Bishop of The Economist; Mary Jordan of The Washington Post; Vuyani Ntanjana of Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund; Kennedy Odede of Shining Hope for Communities Kenya; Dominic Richards of The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community; Special Olympics athletes and Global Messengers; the GoGos (Grannies) from South Africa; as well as experts on architecture and design, mental illness, aging, and other disciplines related to isolation and social connectedness, plus emerging leaders and social entrepreneurs from many parts of the world.


  • Social isolation is the experience of profound, sustained loneliness and disconnection.
  • Social isolation is often accompanied by shame and humiliation.
  • Social isolation often creates barriers to accessing support and assistance for physical, emotional, and other needs.
  • Socially connected people have meaningful and trusting relationships and bonds with those around them, including their peers, families, and communities.

Why social connectedness is important

  • Social connectedness is intrinsically important because it gives people a sense of belonging.
  • Social connectedness is instrumentally important because it increases access to opportunities for changes valued and desired.
  • Isolation undermines the ability of people living in poverty or facing specific challenges – such as disease or discrimination – to build desired changes and improvements.
  • Isolation can be particularly pervasive among people with intellectual disabilities, compounding the many other kinds of disadvantages that they may experience.
  • Social connectedness is a key component of resilient communities.

An emerging movement

  • Recognition is emerging among NGOs, government, and development activists that we can’t just look at physical causes and effects of problems we are trying to address but also social, emotional, and psychological causes and effects. For example, research has shown that isolation is a risk factor for disease on par with smoking and obesity (House, Landis, and Umberson).
  • Research also has shown that isolation is extremely detrimental to the psychosocial development of children (Center on the Developing Child; Synergos).
  • Traditional practices to sustain connectedness exist in many communities and must be supported.
  • Overcoming isolation and deepening social connectedness must be considered in designing social and development programmes and public policy.

Some perspectives on isolation and social connectedness

“Escape from isolation may not only be important for the quality of human life, it can also contribute powerfully to understanding and responding to the other deprivations from which human beings suffer. There is surely a basic strength here which is complementary to the engagement in which theories of justice are involved.” – Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate

“Social connections are as important to our survival and flourishing as the need for food, safety, and shelter.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, author

“In addition to being self-interested, we are also interested in the welfare of others. This, along with self­interest, is part of our basic wiring.” – Matthew Lieberman, neuropsychologist

“The process of ‘civilizing’ in the residential schools system was, in reality, the isolation of children and the process of destroying civilizations and connection. We continue to see the devastating impact in social, political and economic challenges today. We cannot change the past, but the future is in our hands. We are called to undertake reconciliation: to right the relationship, to build understanding, to celebrate resilience and to chart a mutual path forward in which we can all take pride.” – Justice Murray Sinclair, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

“If you are alone, you are dead.” – Roma group in Bulgaria (in Kabakchieva, Illiev, and Konstantinov)

“The most important thing is being able to live with others, because if one is poor, relating with others can reduce one’s poverty.” – Mozambican woman (in Zavaleta, Samuel, and Mills)

“People with intellectual disabilities have dreams. We want to be included. We want to be part of the community.” – Special Olympics athlete David Egan

“Special Olympics has always been a huge part of my life. It’s the first place I actually felt like I belonged. At Special Olympics, I feel like I’m a part of a team, that I am important.” – Special Olympics athlete Kerri Gilroy

“You don’t know what they are feeling inside, and they do isolate themselves because they are being classified as the poor, so [they won’t get] help as a neighbour because they are classified as a poor family, so they will isolate themselves, full of hatred to anyone.” – South African man (in Zavaleta, Samuel, and Mills)

For More Information

Contact Jennifer Brennan at [email protected].