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Social Policy is a Must for Integrated Sustainable Development

20 Sep 2016

Social Policy is a Must for Integrated Sustainable Development
This blog is published as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is by now well-known as a set of 17 Goals and 169 Targets, but it is noticeably silent on how to achieve them. One thing is for certain: meeting each Goal and Target will involve its own distinctive set of confrontations between diverse ideas, institutions, policies and actors. A strategy which identifies interdependence and linkages between Goals and integrates policies to achieve the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development needs to be a central part of the development community’s approach for the next 14 years.

Social policy, a collective intervention in the economy that aims to improve access to adequate and secure livelihoods, income and social services, can be a crucial building block to create an integrated strategy for sustainable development because it is fundamentally a cross-cutting exercise. Its multiple functions bring together economic and social concerns: the production of goods and services, protection from fear and want, care for the vulnerable and for dependent people, redistribution of wealth and income, and social cohesion, all of which are critical to achieve the world we want.

Innovation for transformative change?

Historically, social policies have always been the result of competing values, principles and political and economic interests. Whether in developed or developing countries, policies change as these interests compete, confront and compromise with each other over the nature and forms of production, protection, care, redistribution and social cohesion. Innovations, whether in concepts, knowledge, policies, processes or technology, are what it takes to catalyze change and new trends in social policy. Despite their aspirations and claims, however, not all innovations result in transformative changes in the sense of fundamental changes in social relations and institutions to make them more inclusive and equitable, and the redistribution and rebalancing of power and economic resources. And some innovations may be initially transformative, but subsequently generate obstacles to inclusive and sustainable development, or vice versa.

Agenda 2030 talks about the need for transformative change to achieve the SDGs. In order for the development community to make that change happen in an integrated way, these are some of the questions we need to be asking:

What kind of social policies do we currently have? What innovations can be identified? How do they shape the relationships between the multiple functions of social policy? What contribution can they make to an integrated strategy for sustainable development and ultimately achieving the SDGs? Which social policies can transform this world into a more inclusive, democratic and sustainable one?

Asking the right questions—and providing answers grounded in solid research

Some of these questions are answered in the social policy chapter of the latest UNRISD Flagship Report, which is based on a wide range of past and current research. It examines what changes and reforms have taken place in social policy at local, national, regional and international levels since the 1990s, and identifies some innovations and new trends in social policies that bode well for transformative change. They include the increasing trend towards universalization, integration of policy instruments between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of development, inclusive forms of participation in social policy design and implementation, new forms of partnership to deliver social services, and the emergence of inclusive forms of global and regional social policy.

How these trends are conducive to transformative change, how they have evolved in specific settings, and what lessons can be drawn from these cases is the topic of the chapter on social policy in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report, now available!

Ilcheong Yi is Research Coordinator at UNRISD.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.