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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development

The Developmental Welfare State in Scandinavia: Lessons to the Developing World



Is there a Scandinavian route from the era of semi-feudal societies and absolutist states to contemporary societies with democratic regimes, affluent economies and comprehensive welfare states? This paper traces crucial steps in the history of the Scandinavian welfare state from its early beginnings in the late nineteenth century to the present time. Particular attention is drawn to the general adherence to the principle of universalism.

It shows that development was piecemeal toward the post-Second World War comprehensive welfare state characterized by the principle of universalism and a strong role for the state and local government. A strong social role for the state was not incommensurate with economic development—economic growth and the institutionalization of comprehensive social security and welfare services programmes could develop hand in hand.

The construction of the welfare state was gradual and a continuous balancing act between stimulating economic development and promoting social justice. During periods of economic down-turn and setbacks in the most recent decades, modifications were made to programmes and benefit structures, and some programmes were expanded.

The Scandinavian welfare state has remained comprehensive and, on the whole, rather generous. Although there has been criticism of its scope, the welfare state remains popular, and most politicians from various political parties will defend it on moral, political and economic grounds. The Scandinavian historical experience cannot be copied, and the characteristics and goals of the Scandinavian welfare state may not be universal, but the Scandinavian route to a modern democratic welfare state does still offer some general lessons as to interrelationships between political, economic and social development.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Sep 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020 8208
    From: UNRISD