1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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

Conference News: Social Policy in a Development Context



The aim of the conference was to provide the intellectual underpinnings for why social policy belongs at the core of development policy. This means moving away from social policy as “safety nets” that mitigate development disasters, toward its conception as a powerful instrument that works in tandem with economic policy to ensure equitable and socially sustainable development.

Over 40 specialists representing academic and research institutions, and national and international agencies, were invited to offer comments based on their own areas of expertise, and to propose specific questions for future research. The substantive sessions of the conference fell under four thematic areas: social policy and macroeconomic policy: integrating “the economic” and “the social”; industrialization, employment and social policy; globalization, social security and the privatization of welfare; and welfare regimes, social settlements and livelihoods: the usefulness of a North-South dialogue on social policy.

The problem of the relationship between social welfare and economic performance has a long history. Although much contemporary criticism of economic development is directed at the absence of “social dimensions” as core concerns, most of the pioneers of economic development were drawn to the subject because it addressed issues of poverty. They considered elimination of poverty the central preoccupation of development, and economic growth an important instrument for achieving that goal. In recent years, however, the dominant view has seen social expenditure as merely paying for social consumption. As such it is considered to have a negative impact on economic development because it reduces savings and, therefore, investment.

The opposing point of view restates the trade-off thesis in favour of equity. Here the use of social policy as an instrument is unacceptable on principle, because it downplays the importance of social goals. Usually, critics of instrumentalization are engaged in project or micro-level activities to empower social groups or directly address problems of poverty. With their attention fixed on the livelihood strategies of individual households or communities, however, many of them fail to relate these micro-level strategies to macro-level social polices or economic performance. As a consequence, social development has tended to focus on needs, whether these are expressed as “basic needs” or “sustainable livelihoods”. While such a focus has served as a healthy reminder of the purpose of economic development, it has also tended to give social policy a residual character—something that merely entails costs and is thus likely to slow economic development.

The conference was organized in collaboration with Olof Palme International Centre (OPIC) and with funding from the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (Sida).

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  • Pub. Date: 21 Mar 2001
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8054
    From: UNRISD