1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Social Development Research at UNRISD, 2005-2009

31 Aug 2006



Since the turn of the millennium, patterns of social development have been profoundly affected by social and economic trends, transformations in global politics, and the policy and institutional environment. Gains related to some social indicators confront the dire reality that global levels of extreme poverty and employment show little improvement if any, while various forms of inequality continue to rise.

The revival of interest in poverty reduction and social policy, and increases in social spending by some governments, have occurred alongside state roll-back, fiscal “reform”, and the privatization and commercialization of public services that have restricted the coverage and quality of basic services and social security. Economic liberalization and commodification continue apace in a context of weak institutional arrangements to mitigate the perverse effects of markets. The social situation of women appears highly contradictory: gains in relation to the presence of women in the public domain, education and the labour market do not seem to be reflected in substantial improvements in women’s well-being and livelihood security. Patterns of social integration are shifting in problematic ways: growing inequality, mass migration, marginalized youth, HIV/AIDS, violent conflict, the resurgence of identity politics, and new forms of collective mobilization.

The 2005-2009 UNRISD research agenda, like those of the past, continues to map the contours of this changing reality.

UNRISD has a broad remit to conduct research on social development. Broadly conceived, social development should aim to enhance people’s material well-being, social cohesion, participation and social justice. It is, therefore, as much about equity, empowerment and rights, as it is about social protection and poverty reduction. It requires not only resources and entitlements, but also transformations in social relations that discriminate against and marginalize certain groups, as well as improvements in the institutions of governance that manage collective concerns at different levels.

Under its 2005-2009 research agenda, UNRISD is focusing attention on social policy, poverty reduction and equity. Research is organized under six programme areas: Social Policy and Development; Democracy, Governance and Well-Being; Markets, Business and Regulation; Civil Society and Social Movements; Identities, Conflict and Cohesion; and Gender and Development. The Institute will also organize special events and activities, such as conferences and flagship reports.

Topics being addressed by UNRISD relate directly to concerns raised in the Bulletin of the United Nations Secretary-General that established the Institute over 40 years ago.

The UNRISD mandate calls for research on the relationship between economic and social dimensions of development. In keeping with this orientation, research on poverty reduction, financing social policy, and privatization and commercialization of public services examines both the social impacts of processes associated with economic growth and liberalization, as well as ways in which social and economic development can be mutually reinforcing. There is examination of the interconnections between democracy and economic and social development, including the ways in which democratization both affects, and is affected by, social policy and development.

The Institute’s mandate also calls for research on specific social problems of concern to the United Nations system. In this regard, attention is given to poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS, migration, youth marginalization, xenophobia and violent conflict.

As a United Nations entity, UNRISD must engage in policy-relevant research, examining the (positive and negative) ways in which public policies affect social development. UNRISD research examines the effectiveness of different government and international policies and policy regimes in promoting well-being and social cohesion, giving great importance to the linkages between global, regional, national and local contexts and levels of policy intervention. In the contemporary era of globalization, this type of analysis has become even more pertinent.

A tradition of critical thinking characterizes UNRISD research. This often involves questioning the conventional wisdom that underpins mainstream policy, as well as the latest innovations in development discourse and “knowledge”. Of particular importance is the need to understand processes of policy change in the context of shifts in the constellation of social and political forces, as well as the role of social mobilization, participation and empowerment in improving the situation of the needy and oppressed. Within the United Nations system the analysis of such aspects is often not explicit, and it is therefore important to take advantage of the space for critical inquiry that UNRISD enjoys on account of its autonomous status.

UNRISD is funded exclusively by voluntary contributions from governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), foundations and United Nations agencies. UNRISD receives no money from the United Nations general budget. Core funding comes from a small group of countries and is generally pledged on an annual basis, and project funding is raised on an ad hoc basis by the director and research staff.

Click here to view the research agenda in full.