1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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50 Years of Research for Social Change—UNRISD 1963-2013

28 Jan 2013


50 Years of Research for Social Change—UNRISD 1963-2013
A new year marks a time for reflection. When the year is also a 50th anniversary it calls for longer pause – and for celebration.

In August 1963 UNRISD was established through the inspiration of the first Nobel laureate in economics, Jan Tinbergen, and Gunnar Myrdal (1974 Nobel laureate). The vision of these leading economic thinkers of the day was that "development"at the time largely defined by economic growth through planned capital accumulation, infrastructure investment and industrial modernizationwas failing to take adequate account of social issues, and a concern that this failure could compromise the development project itself.

The recognition that social concerns were key to development was new. So too was the view that researchbringing new methodologies, measurement and indicators, as well as new ways of framing debatesmattered and was needed at the heart of the United Nations system to inform the regional planning commissions, specialized agencies and national governments. The new Institute developed a strong emphasis on empirical research, conducted by researchers based in developing countries who were provided with the opportunity not only to work with researchers from other countries concerned with similar issues, but also to channel their findings to an international audience. By granting the Institute autonomous status in the United Nations system, the then Secretary-General, U Thant, ensured that UNRISD could freely conduct critical research, often on politically sensitive issues.

This was of course a period of vibrant political and social movementsfor independence in colonies, for civil rights, for feminism. Such social transformations posed threats and created uncertainty for some, while also being times of excitement and opportunity, heralding previously unimagined "solutions" to real problemsthe green revolution, the pill, new democracies, a digital communications age. UNRISD engaged with many of these issueshighlighting the forces for social change but also shedding light on the unintended social and distributional consequences of new technologies and policies.

How does this legacy shape UNRISD in 2013? Over five decades UNRISD has pursued the vision of its founders: to bring social issues centrally into the political framing of problems and the formulation of development policies. Consistently its work has focused on analysing underlying, structural problemsthe disembedding of the economy and growth processes from society, the marginalization of social problems as secondary to economic goals, and thus of social policy as a residual field of intervention often detached from economic policy. The result has been and continues to be research that frequently questions conventional wisdom or dominant policy approaches, and points towards alternatives.

Whatever the economic orthodoxy of the time, from Keynsianism to neoliberalism, UNRISD has raised the "social question", engaging in critical analysis in different policy contexts. Its work has brought to the fore issues of participation and empowerment, of women and gender equity; it has highlighted the social effects of globalization, the consequences of social sector commercialization, and the distributional impacts of macroeconomic and trade policies; and it has focused centrally on analysis of often neglected social institutions and relations, rather than the individual. Its early pioneering work on social indicators is considered a precursor to the influential human development index. Occasionally a research programme has outgrown the Institute, spawning a new (and bigger) institutionsuch as the 1990s war-torn societies project.

2013 and Beyond
As I reflect on the year that has started through the lens of our history, the original vision and mission for the Institute remain as current and compelling as ever. Crisis, austerity, uncertainty and deepening global inequalities permeate contemporary debates. The world is reshaping itselfthrough global interconnectedness, shifting power relations, demographic change and environmental limits, among other factors.

For the international development community 2013 is possibly a pivotal year of reframing or reinvigorating the Millennium Development agenda, putting in place the framework for "beyond 2015". The language emerging in key documents reflects the imperative to look further ahead: beyond the immediate manifestations of crisis and continued poverty, beyond "aid", beyond "development". This involves interrogating alternative economic policy frameworks that can place sustainabilitysocial and environmentalat the heart of decision making; recognizing power relations and dynamics in the formation of persistent and pernicious inequalities that limit the well-being of all; and ultimately generating a global consensus to take responsibility for a shared future rooted in our interconnectedness as human beings on a finite planet.

We enter our 50th year proud to build on the achievements of our founders and predecessors, with a research programme focused centrally on issues of social sustainability, the social policies needed to achieve inclusive development outcomes, and the politics that determine how resources are allocated to such ends. The year ahead will see a range of events and activitiesin Geneva, with partners around the world and in virtual spaces. Building on two key characteristics that UNRISD has cultivated over these decadesour convening capacity and our global networkswe look forward to engaging with many of you in the coming monthsto share, to learn and, ultimately, to effect change.

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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.