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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development (2000 - 2009)

Social Policy and the Quest for Inclusive Development: Research Findings from Sub-Saharan Africa



This paper provides a reflective overview of the eight studies commissioned under the UNRISD project on Social Policy in Late Industrializers: Sub-Saharan Africa and the Challenge of Social Policy. The studies involved subregional and thematic social policy concerns. Within this framework, one study was concerned with overall conceptual issues and macroeconomic policy directions, focusing on the dominant or ruling ideas on development that shaped each phase of sub-Saharan Africa’s post-colonial history, and how these ruling ideas shaped economic and social policies. A second set of studies focused on health, water and sanitation dimensions of social policy, while a third examined education and labour market policies. Using comparative techniques, these studies examined clusters of countries in East Africa, Southern Africa and West Africa.

Social policies are understood to be specific and deliberate policies (enacted and pursued) that positively affect social well-being and security. The critical areas of focus therefore were education, health and sanitation, and social security (including social insurance, pension schemes, and policies directed at reducing socioeconomic vulnerability). The idea of a tolerable, minimum level of livelihood and decency is intuitive and socially constructed, and normative (ideological) rather than technical. Such concerns define the links between economic and social policies; the desirable system of social relations and governance; and the specific instruments for achieving the perceived minimum level of well-being.

The paper examines the gaps that may exist between macroeconomic policies, social policies and social policy outcomes; and between the intended and unintended outcomes of social policies and social forces that impact on them. Variations in social development outcomes in the countries examined point to the importance of human agency in mitigating the worst impacts of a debilitating policy environment and a country’s ability to manoeuvre. Equally important is the configuration and orientation of social forces within the state and civil society that shape (initiate, contest, enact) social policies.

One of the main ideas that has shaped economic and social policy thinking and practice in post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa is the nationalist discourse. In turn, two concerns have shaped the nationalist discourse, across the ideological divide: economic growth and national unity. The eradication of ignorance, poverty and disease were central to the nationalist agenda, and economic growth was seen as a means for achieving these objectives. If the nationalist projects of nation-building and growth provided the agenda or ends, however, changing advice and donor agendas shaped the means.

The period from 1960 to 1980 witnessed a significant improvement in a range of social development indicators. However, the post-1980 period—a period of neoliberal adjustment programmes—showed two patterns: significant volatility in gross domestic savings (GDS) and gross capital formation (GCF), and shortfall in GDS relative to GCF.

The research on the education and health policy environments highlighted the influence of the wider, dominant perception of education in the early (nationalist) post-colonial period. Education was not only about raising literacy levels and providing the human resources needed for economic growth, it was the individual’s means of securing better livelihood. The crisis that was to become emblematic of the early 1980s emerged in different ways in the countries studied. Nigeria witnessed a collapse in public spending on education in the 1980s. In Ghana and Zimbabwe, there were efforts to protect social spending. In Botswana, growth in the economy was followed by an increase in social spending, albeit at a much later stage. An assessment of the education dimension of social policy objectives raises the twin issues of gender disparity and the role of agency in the pattern of achievement. There is evidence, however, of the adverse impact of the adjustment years. In countries where there has been a dramatic rise in student enrolment, the increase has been “financed” by overcrowding, decline in quality of teaching and the neglect of research activities. While “user-fees” have often been promoted on the grounds of equity of access, there is little evidence that it achieved equity—indeed, the reverse has been the case.

As with education, two patterns of health provisioning emerged pre- and post-1980s, and it was perhaps in the area of health care provisioning that the aggressive retrenchment of the state and cuts in social expenditure had the most negative effects. In countries already faced with rapidly declining household income levels and the rising tide of poverty, the imposition of user-fees had the effect of mediating citizenship with capacity to engage in the market. The HIV/AIDS pandemic and its phenomenal spread across much of sub-Saharan Africa is emblematic of this massive entitlement failure, and of how the retrenchment of health provisioning undermined the capacity of many countries to cope with the pandemic. As the impact of the efforts to retrench the public realm in social provisioning has become clear, and as the mechanism of user-fees has been revealed as more ideological than financially sound, efforts are being made to find new ways of funding national health care needs.

On the broad social policy front, the current pursuit of the claimed objectives of reducing poverty and inequality through a raft of targeted mechanisms is paradoxical in the light of the existing body of knowledge about the relationship between institutional frameworks or models of social policy, on one hand, and poverty and inequality, on the other. Studies of targeted social policies have demonstrated that even in the most administratively robust state with extensive surveillance systems, targeting suffers from extensive problems, such as undercoverage and leaking to those outside the targeted group. What is significant for policy making and policy outcomes, generally, is that where coverage has improved, this was the result not of conflict between a virtuous civil society and a vicious state, but of key policy makers and state functionaries taking a leadership role, in partnership with advocacy agencies.

In many ways, the last 20 years have highlighted the crisis of citizenship and statehood in most African countries. The implications of widespread deprivation and the social development crisis, highlighted in the research and summarized in this paper, are evident in the rising number of state implosions and conflicts. While not wishing to suggest that adjustment policies created these horrendous events, the author suggests a link between the retrenchment of state capacity for social provisioning and the crisis of statehood. The retreat of the state from social delivery (health care, education, human security, and so on) undermined the relevance and the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of its citizens.

The paper concludes by highlighting six imperatives of rethinking social policy in sub-Saharan Africa, beyond the neoliberal policy thrust of the last 25 years. These are based on three normative concerns: inclusivity, development, and democracy—where “public reasoning” is the basis of public and civic relationships.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 May 2007
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8208
    From: UNRISD