1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

  • 0
  • 0

Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development (2000 - 2009) | Event: UNRISD - Sida/SAREC Workshop on Social Policy and Equality

UNRISD - Sida/SAREC Workshop on Social Policy and Equality

UNRISD - Sida/SAREC Workshop on Social Policy and Equality: Summary of the Discussions


Social policy, broadly defined as public policy that aims explicitly to promote social protection and equality, has been profoundly affected by contemporary thinking and processes associated with economic liberalization, the rolling back of the state, new public management, “good governance”, the commercialization and privatization of public services, targeting and donor conditionality. Research can play an important role in understanding the ways in which social, economic, political and institutional contexts condition policy design and outcomes.

To examine the relationship between social policy and equality, UNRISD and Sida/SAREC co-hosted a two-day workshop on 21-22 February 2006 at the International Forum on the Social Science – Policy Nexus in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Twenty-one speakers and discussants examined six sets of issues: the shift from universalism to targeting; regional variations in social policy and patterns of inequality; the relationship between macro-economic policy and inequality; the transfer of responsibility for social protection from the public to the private domain; gender dimensions of social policy and inequality; and the politics of social policy.

At the workshop, social science researchers who have co-ordinated international research projects on the above topics presented the results of their studies and senior policy makers from national governments and international organizations commented on the findings. Thus, the workshop provided an opportunity for a rich exchange between researchers and policy makers on the role of social policy in promoting equality.

Summary of the Discussions

Recent reforms in social policy in many countries have focused less on the goal of universal social protection, and more on targeting specific vulnerable groups, and achieving greater efficiency in the use of existing or diminished public resources. Such approaches have often disregarded various forms of inequality that have been a feature of economic liberalization, and the need to promote equality through redistribution and empowerment. They have also been questioned for their inability to effectively target the poor, leading to the maxim that social services for the poor are poor services. Much of the discussion was critical of the contemporary approaches to social welfare and protection involving targeting and safety-nets, although there were also significant differences of opinion with regard to the relative effectiveness of targeting programmes in certain countries.

The workshop presentations on poverty, inequality and social development in countries in the Nordic region, East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Latin America revealed the diversity of national and regional experiences and policy approaches, and they cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach. While during the early 1990s there was much talk of a generalized crisis of the welfare state, patterns of restructuring have in fact varied significantly by region or category of country. In the Nordic region, for example, the welfare state has shown considerable resilience; in East Asia, new social compromises have strengthened selected forms of social protection; while in many Latin American countries a more profound restructuring has taken place. Neo-liberal inspired reforms have also challenged welfare systems in Sub-Saharan Africa, where state capacity has been seriously eroded, as well as in the Middle East, where welfare demands from social groups claiming citizenship rights are increasing. The presentations identified the factors and contexts that account for such variations and emphasized the limits of standardized policy prescriptions and institutional design.

Participants stressed the importance of learning from both historical and contemporary experiences of countries and regions that have made progress in terms of poverty reduction and equity. Key elements of success relate to policy regimes where the relations between social policy, growth strategies and regulatory institutions are synergistic and complementary, rather than contradictory. Greater attention needs to be paid to the social implications of macro-economic policies, and the tensions between social development and macro-economic policy that are often a feature of dominant policy approaches.

State-market relations and the burden of responsibility for social protection are changing with large corporations assuming a more direct role in social provisioning and protection. Speakers examined two aspects of such trends, namely the privatization and the commercialization of healthcare and water services, and corporate social responsibility. The discussions emphasized the problematic implications of the privatization of public services for social development and equity, particularly in contexts where regulatory frameworks were weak. While the corporate social responsibility agenda has expanded considerably in recent years, from the perspective of equity it focuses quite narrowly on social and environmental protection. Other aspects that are crucial from the perspective of equity, namely rights, empowerment and redistribution, receive less attention. The discussions also stressed the need for CSR not to be seen as a substitute for state responsibility.

The retreat of the state has also meant a more expanded role for “the family” and “community”. Policy actors either assume that women and girls who make up these units will continue to provide care for children, the elderly and the sick, or as in the case of conservative and religious-based movements and policies, actively reinforce women’s caring duties as part and parcel of an ideological drive to restrict women’s choices and public roles. The workshop discussions examined these trends and underscored the centrality of redistribution as a core principle underpinning social protection programmes (e.g. public pensions) and public services (e.g. health, education). Women tend to be among the main losers when redistribution is displaced by a market-oriented logic that introduces individualized methods of risk and benefit calculation (e.g. privatised pensions) and out-of-pocket payments (in commercial service provision). This is primarily because of the persistent ways in which women continue to be attached to the non-monetised arena of social reproduction and care, and to be overwhelmingly present on the periphery of the formal economy as informal and low-paid workers.

The final session of the workshop considered the significant changes that have occurred during the past two decades in relation to the politics of social policy. Particularly relevant have been shifts in the relative strength of different social and political forces, including business interests and trade unions; the rise of technocratic forms of policy making; and ongoing experimentation with specific forms of participation and multi-stakeholder consultation. Such developments have important implications for social policy and yield a very mixed scorecard in terms of enhancing or undermining its effectiveness. The discussions on how to reform social policy stressed the importance of analyzing political dimensions, in particular, the formation and influence of constituencies of social and political actors that can ensure that governments assign the necessary priority and resources to social policy; effective interest group articulation and representation that is socially inclusive; and redistributive policies and programmes that directly address structural inequalities and constraints. Contemporary approaches to policy and institutional design, however, often ignore such aspects. Significant differences of opinion among workshop participants were apparent in relation to the roles and capacities of NGOs in social development and governance. A debate also ensued on the usefulness of approaches based on citizenship rights, particularly in contexts where migration and informality mean that there are large populations of undocumented persons.

Various policy implications emerged from the discussions. These included:
  • While the recent revival of interest in social policy and equity in many countries and international institutions is to be welcomed, insufficient attention is being paid to the negative way in which dominant policies and processes associated with economic liberalization and the macroeconomic policy regime impact social development and equity; structural inequities associated with gender relations and income and wealth distribution; and to the key role of the state in social development.
  • Donors should give greater priority to long-term investments in autonomous knowledge creation and research capacity in developing countries, as well as recognize and use the wealth of existing knowledge.
  • There is an urgent need to rethink the contemporary poverty reduction model associated with PRSPs given its failure to address fundamental causes of poverty and inequality associated with macroeconomic policy, privatization of public services, the dynamics of domestic politics, and structural constraints.
  • Given the considerable gaps in knowledge regarding effective strategies to combat poverty and inequality, considerable research is needed, particularly on ways and means of financing social policy, the politics of social policy, and the relationship of social policy to both economic policy and regulatory institutions.
  • Within mainstream social development discourse and policy there needs to be a shift in emphasis away from targeting, safety-nets and narrow perspectives on participation, and towards universalism, rights, redistribution, representation and empowerment. Such a shift would not only facilitate poverty eradication but also reduce persistent forms of class, gender and ethnic inequalities.
  • Donors and policy makers need to recognize that the route to poverty reduction and equity requires not only direct support for social projects and programmes, but also investments to strengthen productive capacity, revitalize depressed sectors such as agriculture, and rebuild state capacity to mobilize domestic resources.


The workshop was composed of eight sessions as outlined below.

Session 1: Targeting and Universalism in Poverty Reduction

Speaker: Thandika Mkandawire, Director, UNRISD
(click here to read the paper on which the presentation was based)

Discussant: Asbjørn Løvbræk, Senior Advisor, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Norway
(click here to read the comments by Asbjørn Løvbræk)

Session 2: Regional Perspectives (A): The Nordic Countries and East Asia

Speaker: Joakim Palme, Director, Institute for Futures Studies, Sweden.
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Speaker: Huck-ju Kwon, Professor, Graduate School of Governance, Sung Kyun Kwan University, South Korea
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Discussant: Timo Voipio, Social Development Advisor, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Finland
(click here to read the comments by Timo Voipio)

Discussant: Jomo K.S., Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, USA
(click here to read the comments by Jomo K.S.)

Session 3: Regional Perspectives (B): The Middle East and Africa

Speaker: Massoud Karshenas, Professor of Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; ISS, the Netherlands
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Speaker: Jimi Adesina, Professor of Sociology, Rhodes University, South Africa
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Discussant: Mervat Tallawy, Under-Secretary-General, UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Lebanon
(click here to read the comments by Mervat Tallawy)

Discussant: Olive Shisana, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Human Sciences Research Council and Department of Social Development, South Africa
(click here to read the comments by Olive Shisana)

Session 4: Regional Perspectives (C): Latin America

Speaker: Manuel Riesco, Director, National Centre for Alternative Development Studies, Chile
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Discussant: H.E. Ana Maria Romero-Lozada, Minister of Women and Social Development, Peru
(click here to read the comments by H.E. Ana Maria Romero-Lozada)

Session 5: Macroeconomic Policy and Inequality

Speaker: Jayati Ghosh, Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Discussant: Andrés Solimano, Regional Advisor, UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Chile
(click here to read the comments by Andrés Solimano)

Session 6: Social Policy and the Private Sector

Speaker: Celia Iriart, Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of New Mexico, USA
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Speaker: Peter Utting, UNRISD research on Corporate Social Responsibility, Switzerland
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Discussant: Carlos M. Vilas, President, Tripartite Body for Sanitation Works and Services (ETOSS), Argentina; former Under-Secretary of Security and Civil Protection, Argentina
(click here to read the comments by Carlos M. Vilas)

Session 7: Social Policy and Gender Equality

Speaker: Shahra Razavi, Co-ordinator, UNRISD Research on Gender and Development, Switzerland
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Discussant: Maria del Carmen Feijoo, Liaison Officer, UN Population Fund, Argentina. Former Executive-Secretary of the National Council of Coordination of Social Policies, Buenos Aires, Argentina
(click here to read the comments by Maria del Carmen Feijoo)

Session 8: The Politics of Social Policy

Speaker: Yusuf Bangura, Co-ordinator, UNRISD research on Democratization and Governance, Switzerland
(click here to read the summary of the presentation)

Discussant: Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, Member of Parliament for Kisumu Rural in the Kenyan National Assembly and Director of the African Research and Resource Forum, Nairobi, Kenya; former Minister for Planning and National Development, Kenya
(click here to read the comments by Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o)