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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development

Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization

Date: 8 - 9 Nov 2018

  • Time: 09.00 - 18.00
  • Location: Rooms XVIII and XXIII, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
  • Donor(s): Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung CAGI

  • This event is open to the public.

Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization
Welcome to the UNRISD Conference "Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization"

Registration is now open: please click here.

The full Programme is available here.

Practical information on the event is available here.

Special event


The top-level panel discussion Engines of Inequality? Elites, Power and Politics which UNRISD is co-hosting with the University of Geneva the day before the Conference may also be of interest to you. Click here for more details.

What the conference is about


Inequalities are one of today’s greatest challenges, obstructing poverty reduction and sustainable development. Such disparities are catalysed by elite capture of economic and political power, a reinforcing process that compounds inequality, which—in its various dimensions—undermines social, environmental and economic sustainability, and fuels poverty, insecurity, crime and xenophobia.

As the power of elites grows and societal gaps widen, institutions representing the public good and universal values are increasingly disempowered or co-opted, and visions of social justice and equity side-lined. As a result, society is fracturing in ways that are becoming more and more tangible, with the growing divide between the privileged and the rest dramatically rearranging both macro structures and local lifeworlds.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seeks to overcome such disparities, “leaving no one behind”. But how can this ambitious vision be achieved in the current climate, in which those in power act to protect the status quo from which they benefit? How can we build progressive alliances to drive the political and policy changes needed for an equitable, inclusive 21st century eco-social compact?

Register for this event here


The panels


The conference will comprise 9 panels, each with 5 speakers, who will tease out different aspects of the topics covered based on insightful research and evidence from case studies. Please see the Programme for more details on timing, the speaker line-up and the titles of the presentations.

DAY 1

Session 1. Inequality and Institutions: Political Barriers to Transformative Change
    Transformative social policies can be defined as those that reduce structural inequalities and address the root causes of poverty, a long-term endeavor that requires changes in social relations and social institutions. However, institutions do not exist in a vacuum. They are designed in response to various pressures arising from the global economic system, and tied to political contexts specific in terms of space and time. They are determined by a variety of factors, including the incentives of those who design and manage them, the electoral landscape that brought them into power, and the networks of influential actors—from policy makers, to donors, to business actors—who stand to gain from their success or failure. How do these underlying power dynamics impact development outcomes? How do institutions at different levels, from local to global, interact? What political barriers exist that need to be overcome to reduce inequality and create better institutions?


Session 2a. Networks of Power in a Fractured World: The Role and Influence of Elites
    Elites constitute a unique social group defined by their disproportionate control over resources—be they economic, political, cultural—and their ability to translate those resources into power, influence and other forms of capital. They are often linked much more closely to each other across linguistic, cultural and geographic divides than to citizens of their own nations. How have elites and elite networks brought about the deepening of social and economic cleavages across the globe? What are the motivations for elites to work together, what are the tools used, and what impact has this had on global political shifts? What role have elites played in engendering or inhibiting transformative change in the past, and what might motivate elites to engage in progressive alliances?


Session 2b. The Role of Institutions in Perpetuating or Curbing Inequalities
    Unequal power relations and inequalities are maintained and reinforced through formal and informal institutions, ranging from electoral rules to education systems, property rights, access to finance and capital, and social norms. Which kinds of policies and institutional structures are most effective in moving countries towards greater equality, and which ones further entrench divisions? How can social policies and institutions be used to either create spaces for marginalized actors—including women, minorities and popular classes—to have a slice of the pie, or create a barrier across which certain kinds of actors cannot move? Which institutions and regulations at national, regional and global levels can rein in elite power for the sake of public interest?


Session 3a. Elite Ideology and Perceptions of Inequality: Implications for Redistribution and Social Cohesion
    Elites play a key role in perpetuating or deepening inequality, but also have the power to ameliorate it. Elites tend to hold key positions in political, economic and cultural domains of society, which gives them the opportunity to act as enlightened leaders and drivers for progressive change. How do elites perceive inequality, its causal drivers and consequences? How do they perceive their roles and responsibilities in relation to a greater public good, and how do they perceive themselves in relation to other elites or groups in society? What can encourage and incentivize, or pressure, elites—who control economies and political systems—to promote policies that lessen their share of influence?


Session 3b. Shifting Class Structures and Identities in the Age of Neoliberalism
    Organized labour was a crucial actor in the construction of modern welfare states, whereas middle class buy-in has been equally important for universalizing social rights while guaranteeing sustainable financing and quality control of public social services. How have class structures and identities shifted in the age of neoliberalism and rapid technological progress that is changing the world of work, and what does this shift imply for the possibility of progressive alliances for social change? What factors push some segments of middle classes rightwards while they incite disengagement in others, and how can middle classes be reincorporated into a project of progressive social change? What is the role of labour movements, including informal workers’ organizations, in times of a growing and diversifying precariat in both the Global South and North? How do intersecting identities such as class, gender, sexuality and race/ethnicity play out in political mobilization, and what is the role of politics of recognition?


DAY 2

Session 4a. Cities for Whom? Causes and Consequences of Urban Socio-Spatial Inequalities
    Inequalities often come to a head most visibly at the local level, spaces in which those at either end of the spectrum engage with each other on a daily basis, mediated through various forms of power relations as well as social, spatial and economic barriers. How do these cleavages impact daily life, and what consequences (economic, political, environmental, human) do they pose for a city, a country or individual lives? What effects have these fractures had on the social and spatial arrangements of communities—in particular through the closing out of public space and access to services and infrastructure—and what new challenges do these pose for groups such as women, the poor, and minorities, as well as the ecosystems they inhabit? As new lines are drawn, how are practices of citizenship being reshaped and what spaces for progressive change are being closed out—or opening up—as a result? What motivates choices to either opt out of a commitment to the public good through access to private means or to participate in an inclusive social compact?


Session 4b. Between Climate Justice and Social Exclusion: Towards an Eco-Social Approach
    One of the most profound ways in which inequalities are felt at the local level is through the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Those least responsible for global warming incur the highest social cost, and further, are often either left out of or negatively impacted by policies meant to stem the impacts of climate change, constituting a triple injustice. How are this global crisis and responses to it—mediated through unequal power relations—rearranging local lifeworlds, compounding precarity and creating new forms of inequality? How can an eco-social approach that addresses environmental issues in tandem with social ones simultaneously push forward both sustainability and social justice, while respecting traditional ways of life, empowering local actors, and healing our ailing planet?


Session 5a. Towards Transformative Public Policy: Undermining Elite Power through Local Collaboration and Social Mobilization
    Shifts towards progressive social policies that address inequality at its core are few and far between, regularly blockaded by the powerful elites who find such redistributive measures contrary to their interests. To truly achieve social justice requires an approach that attacks inequality at the structural level, addressing root causes and rearranging power structures. Such a transformative approach is necessary to achieve lasting change. Despite many barriers, several countries have implemented innovative policy approaches and succeeded in implementing reforms with progressive outcomes, from the local to the national level, curbing inequalities, sharing costs and benefits of reforms more fairly, and making their societies more just and green. What popular mechanisms of political engagement have been most effective at curbing elite influence and pushing forward policies that address inequality at the structural level? On the other hand, what strategies have failed to upend the status quo, and what can be learned from the unsuccessful attempts?


Session 5b. Actors, Alliances and Strategies for a New Social Compact
    In the past, progressive policy change in industrialized democracies was often steered by broad cross-class coalitions between popular and middle classes that effectively pressured elites; in countries of the Global South, enlightened leaders and liberation movements often played a similar role. However, social and economic forces that underpinned progressive policy change of the past, such as workers’ movements and trade unions, take a very different shape today, as economic systems have evolved, identities have shifted, new forms of politics have unfolded, and new conceptions of class have arisen. In response, new forms of social movements have sprung up out of reinterpreted visions of citizenship, but their potential for long-term political impact has yet to be proven. What examples exist of peaceful processes of policy change that have levelled out social stratification and devolved power and resources from elites to non-elites, and what were the drivers or incentives in those processes? Which factors support the creation of cross-class coalitions and other forms of social mobilization for progressive policy reforms and transformative change? What examples exist in which social cleavages have been held at bay, and what mechanisms have been employed in these cases—be they on the transnational, national, subnational or local level—to achieve social progress within planetary boundaries?

Special Session. UN and Civil Society Roundtable: The Politics of Transformative Change
    This special session features policy makers, practitioners and activists in conversation about the challenges of inequality and transformative change from their perspective, bringing the conference to a practice-oriented close.
    The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development commits all states to be part of a new global compact that will leave no one behind. It explicitly aims to tackle inequality within and between countries (SDG 10) and genders (SDG 5) and to promote peaceful and inclusive societies (SDG 16), three goals that exemplify the scope and depth of the new global development strategy and the strong engagement of a range of actors such as civil society organizations, activists and academics in its making. While the aspirations of the Agenda are laudable, it is silent on a more substantive understanding of transformation, and how it will actually happen. What is needed now is a better understanding of the politics of transformative change: how can effective and durable national and global compacts be forged between the multiple stakeholders addressed in the SDGs? This roundtable will bring together activists, policymakers and UN representatives to ask what is needed to forge a new social compact that truly leaves no one behind.

Please see the Programme for more details on the sessions.


Objectives and impacts


The Conference brings together expertise from across a diversity of countries and disciplines to:
  • facilitate knowledge exchange and mutual learning across academia, civil society, the UN and national governments, about progressive alliances and policy change for more equitable, sustainable, and just societies;
  • propose evidence-based recommendations for innovative ways in which diverse actors can work together to design and deliver a transformative eco-social compact for the 21st century; and
  • bring this new evidence and analysis, especially from the Global South, to bear on UN debates and policy processes, including implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UNRISD will disseminate the evidence and key recommendations from the papers and conference discussions in formats that will support practitioners, activists and decision makers at local, national, regional and global levels.

There is no fee to attend this conference.

Click here to register.



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