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The Significance of Social Inclusion for Development

3 May 2011



Social inclusion is a significant factor in development and requires policies that recognize the importance of societal levels of analysis, not simply economic or individual indicators, suggested UNRISD Director Sarah Cook in a speech to the 10th session of the intergovernmental council of the UNESCO Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST).

Social inclusion, also referred to as social integration or social cohesion, represents a vision for a “society for all” in which every individual has rights, responsibilities and an active role to play. This, Cook explained, is highly relevant for development work because it demands that research and policy reflect context-specific societal dimensions, as well as analysis of both individual and social factors.

In the context of deepening inequalities and widespread social exclusion, captured most recently by the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the need for social inclusion research in development is great.

The concept of social inclusion was popularized through discussions at the World Summit for Social Development in 1995. But since then, according to Cook, research to define, measure and enhance social inclusion has suffered from two key shortcomings: first, the continued marginalization of social as compared with economic dimensions; and second, a focus on individual as compared with societal dimensions.

Paid work and full employment are central to the realization of social inclusion, but these alone are not sufficient for the creation of an inclusive society, Cook explained. Overcoming social exclusion requires more than attention to economic exclusion. Despite the popularity of the social inclusion framework, the vast majority of research since the 1995 Summit has tended to assume that social inclusion can be achieved simply through the extension of economic inclusion. Yet as Cook pointed out, exclusion “also involves limits on the capacity of individuals or social groups to participate in society due to …other social (cultural, religious, gender) factors”.

Inclusive societies are built through individual actions in tandem with institutions that encourage inclusion. The emphasis on and enthusiasm for the concept of social capital over the last decade has often failed to recognize that social capital is only a means to an end. Research needs to focus on understanding what roles institutions can play in promoting social inclusion. This requires that we go beyond the level of individual or local social capital and examine which processes and policies contribute to the creation of institutions that promote cohesive societies.

UNRISD research indicates that social policies that promote the establishment of norms of solidarity and reciprocity, as well as practices based on universal rights-based entitlements, are more likely to lead to long-lasting social inclusion. These approaches promote the kind of integration and inclusion that fosters a more equitable and just society. The development of such policies must be conducted locally: countries need the capacity to analyse their own histories and problems and develop their own solutions. This requires strong social science capabilities at local and national levels but as the UNESCO World Social Science report highlights, there remain considerable inequalities. This must be addressed moving forward and is vital to the realization of the vision of social inclusion.

Socially inclusive development needs to be a longer term strategic policy rather than project-based, however it will take work to convince policy makers of the merits of this approach. Both UNRISD and UNESCO / MOST will continue to contribute to efforts to do so.

Relevant UNRISD publications:

Defining and Measuring Social Cohesion: Social Policies in Small States Series, No. 1

Environmental Degradation and Social Integration

Globalization and Social Integration: Patterns and Processes

On the Social Costs of Modernization: Social Disintegration, Atomie/Anomie and Social Development

Social Integration: Approaches and Issues

Social Integration: Institutions and Actors

Research for Social Change, UNRISD 40th Anniversary Report, Chapter 3