1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Message from the Director, Sarah Cook: New Year’s Greetings from Geneva, and Welcome to the First UNRISD E-Bulletin of 2014

28 Jan 2014

Message from the Director, Sarah Cook: New Year’s Greetings from Geneva, and Welcome to the First UNRISD E-Bulletin of 2014
UNRISD enters 2014 with a renewed sense of purpose and energy that comes from having celebrated its 50th anniversary with many colleagues, friends and supporters around the world – in person, online or in spirit. A highlight was Timo Voipio (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland) leading his local choir in a special Finnish birthday song for UNRISD. We are grateful for all the sincere good wishes, positive feedback and constructive suggestions received from so many of you as we look to our future.

A number of activities throughout the year were designed to share the legacy of 50 years of research for social change. Visitors to our website will have noticed its new look and increased functionality, including a dramatically improved search engine to enable you to find items more easily in our vast database of publications. To guide you through this wealth of past and current research, a timeline has been created highlighting major strands of UNRISD work over half a century. We have also selected a number of our landmark publications since the 1960s, organized around the themes of social policy and inclusive development, gender and development, and sustainable development, and they are forthcoming in three e-volumes.

Reflecting on these "50 years of research for social change" raises fundamental concerns about the future of development, concerns that are reflected in the debates over a post-2015 agenda. The visible social costs and consequences of contemporary development paths, combined with environmental constraints, threaten progress towards more equitable and better-off societies in many parts of the world. A year ago, I noted the major concern that drove UNRISD’s founders – that the neglect of social questions would undermine the development project itself. While economic and social transformations over the past half-century have been profound, the same fundamental tensions between economic progress and the distribution of its costs and benefits remain an enduring policy challenge.

The past year has also been a time for reflection and debate about the role and value of different forms of research for addressing these issues within the United Nations system. Proposed reforms raised the prospect of the merger of a number of UN research and training institutions, including UNRISD, with the potential loss of autonomy and thus independence over research that UNRISD has enjoyed, and which is seen as core to its mandate. The proposal was strongly resisted by the Board of UNRISD, and we received support from many constituents, including importantly some of our key Member State donors. While the outcome of the wider process is still pending, the value of autonomous spaces for research has been reasserted, and the cost-effectiveness of small, voluntarily funded institutions such as UNRISD recognized. UNRISD thus enters 2014 with much greater certainty about its institutional future.

On the funding side, the situation is also positive. After a period of significant budget cuts, we have secured funding from Sweden, Switzerland and the Ford Foundation for a number of exciting new projects that will be continued or launched in 2014. We anticipate a year of expansion particularly in terms of research staff and activities, with processes to recruit Junior Professional staff supported by Germany and Switzerland currently under way.

Research on the politics of domestic resource mobilization is in progress in a number of countries and already generating interesting findings showing the political nature of fiscal policies and the need to factor processes of social mobilization and negotiation into the analysis of domestic resource mobilization strategies. A major inquiry into social and solidarity economy has shed light on the potential and limits of socially oriented, cooperative or solidaristic forms of enterprise for the economic and political empowerment of informal economy workers and small producers. A conference co-hosted with the ILO served to raise the visibility of these forms of economic organizations across the UN and led to the establishment of a United Nations inter-agency task force currently coordinated by UNRISD. The gender programme continues to expand with field work on processes of claims-making for gender equality policies beginning in India, China and Indonesia. This comparative research project seeks to understand the factors and conditions under which state and non-state actors can effectively trigger and influence policy change. Finally, research on new directions in social policy will be launched with a workshop in April. This research aims to critically appraise policies and programmes in developing countries that appear to be expanding beyond narrow or targeted approaches to social protection, potentially creating new social contracts or welfare systems that may offer more sustainable policies for social development.

We look forward to working with you over the coming year – in continuing to produce innovative and policy-relevant research findings, in framing debates and shaping policies, and in creating a better understanding of policy implementation, in order to generate processes of change that are transformative, equitable and sustainable.



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