Issue No. 4 March 2011
UNRISD is an autonomous institution within the UN system that carries out multidisciplinary research on the social dimensions of contemporary development issues.


Yusuf Bangura
The popular revolts in the Arab world underscore the importance of grounding governments in foundations of democracy, well-being and equity. When Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, set himself ablaze after losing his livelihood to the police, no one predicted that the event would signal the beginning of a mass movement that would challenge long-standing dictatorships in the region.

Occurring in the midst of a food crisis that has brought hardship to millions, the Bouazizi tragedy caught the public imagination because it summed up deep-seated vulnerabilities that define the lives of many people: high rates of unemployment, precarious livelihoods, limited social protection, and lack of redress when governments ignore citizen demands.

The Arab region has of course made progress on a number of social indicators, such as literacy, life expectancy and access to basic services. One study1 even toasts North Africa as an unsung “miracle” because education and health components of its human development index grew faster over a 40-year period than the world average. However, the uprisings have exposed the limitations of such indexes, which ignore asset and income inequalities, as well as basic freedoms, in measuring well-being.

The outcome of the revolts is far from clear. Basic freedoms and credible elections may take root in some countries, but incumbents may use repression and oil wealth to stifle opposition in others. Armed external intervention may be necessary in situations where leaders vow to unleash mass terror on populations. However, such interventions may distort the democratization process, especially when civic activism takes a back seat and authoritarian governments seeking to maintain their own rule join the interventions. Furthermore, as experiences elsewhere suggest, even credible elections may not translate into improved well-being for all if governments’ agendas are not developmental and redistributive.

Three issues need to be addressed if the Arab spring is to have a lasting and positive impact for the poor. These are equity-based growth strategies, social protection for all, and inclusive politics.

In many countries, dependence on oil rents has fuelled corruption, conspicuous consumption and overvalued exchange rates. This has affected sectors of the economy where the majority earns its living. However, with the right policies, institutions and practices, this resource-endowed region with a population of more than 300 million can become an industrial powerhouse, provide decent jobs (especially for its rapidly growing youth population) and feed everyone. There are resource-dependent countries, such as Malaysia, that avoided the resource curse and climbed up the global industrial ladder within a generation.

Social policies are also needed that protect all citizens from basic risks of unemployment, underemployment and ill health, and assist with the care of children and the elderly. Such policies should depart from the region’s fragmented and patronage-based systems of social protection, as well as the practice of distributing money to citizens when leaders are under siege. Instead, governments should treat social policies as acquired rights. Arguments of affordability are untenable in a region where six countries are classified as high income, three as upper middle income and eight as lower middle income.

Inclusive politics is also important. Governments are unlikely to pursue redistributive policies if political parties are disconnected from people’s aspirations. Thus the quality of emerging parties in the region will have to be nurtured, and gendered in terms of membership, participation and policies. Gendering the democratic process is particularly important because of the region’s historically sharp gender disparities and exclusions, and considering women’s active participation in the protests.

Finally, even though the region has one overwhelmingly dominant language and religion, it is far from homogeneous. The transition is likely to be more complicated in countries such as Bahrain, Libya and Yemen that are fractionalized along dimensions of "tribe", clan and religious denomination. If such cleavages polarize into a few clusters, organizing elections without building institutions that can moderate these cleavages could produce outcomes in which incumbents with flawed mandates cling to power, reopening a new round of instability, as has happened in Côte d’Ivoire.

The Arab spring holds promise, but it has to be democratically anchored in the right institutions and made to serve the interests of the broad mass of the people.

1 F. Rodriguez and E. Samman, "The North African Miracle", Let’s Talk Human Development, UNDP, 2010.


The "Protect, Respect and Remedy" Framework for Business and Human Rights: Guiding principles are original and significant—but tame

Original and significant because they unite three of the crucial institutional arrangements necessary to ensure corporate accountability—national law and public policy, meaningful voluntary CSR initiatives and active citizenship—yet tame in their focus on existing (rather than new) institutions. They also fall short in addressing the fourth dimension of good governance—the role of global institutions and international oversight and regulation—according to UNRISD Deputy Director Peter Utting.

Read UNRISD’s Official Response

First Global Poverty Summit

"Social policies must be grounded in universal rights", UNRISD Research Coordinator Yusuf Bangura told the Johannesburg summit. Transformative social policy should aim for redistribution; enhancing productive capacities of individuals and communities; and protecting people through improving institutions and policies that address unemployment, health issues and elderly people’s needs, which in turn help reduce poverty.

Gender inequality exists not only at home but also in the market

Gender inequality is a feature of the public domain and its institutions, most notably markets and macroeconomic flows. The critical issue is how to strengthen women’s real options and entitlements both to decently paid work or income and to social rights for unpaid work.

Social protection: Do the instruments match the objectives?

Social protection has become the policy tool of choice for responding to crisis, protecting the vulnerable, alleviating poverty, investing in human capital, and achieving more equitable and sustainable growth paths and social cohesion. Public policies that protect people against shocks, or support them in the case of contingencies such as ill-health, are clearly necessary for progress toward the above objectives. Are the instruments which dominate the policy debates adequate for these multiple tasks?

How can UNRISD communicate its research more effectively?—Survey results

The survey was one step towards the development of a strategy for making our work more relevant and useful for our audiences through effective communication and engagement. We are grateful to the 2,662 people who took the time to respond so thoroughly and honestly.

UNRISD poverty report roadshow continues…

Since its launch in Geneva, the UNRISD flagship report, Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics, has been presented at 28 events in 18 countries, including Brazil, China, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Recent presentations include Rabat, Morocco, and Mexico City, Mexico.

The Overview of the UNRISD flaghsip report is available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Spanish.


UNRISD call for papers—Green economy and sustainable development: Bringing back the social dimension

Abstracts are invited from interested researchers and other specialists on the following topics:
1. Social impacts and distributional consequences of policies and processes associated with green economy.
2. The potential and limits of structural and institutional change.
3. Agency and social mobilization for institutional and policy change.

"Making markets work" for small-scale farmers? A series of provocations

A travelling series of provocative seminars examining the assumptions, impacts, evidence, benefits and risks of "making markets work" for small-scale farmers. Each event entails three hours of debate, streamed and interactive on the web. As a collaborating partner, UNRISD will co-host a provocation on inclusive business and producer empowerment in June 2011.


Enrique Peruzzotti, a visiting research fellow at UNRISD, September 2009-June 2010

Could you tell us about your research? What brought you to UNRISD?
I work on civil society and civil society politics in Latin America. I started working with different social movements, particularly the human rights movement and later on, movements organized around demands for accountability. After that, I started expanding my analysis of civil society to include other types of initiatives that were particularly interesting in the area of social policy, such as development of social councils and participatory budgeting. That’s why I decided to choose UNRISD as an ideal place to develop this second part of my research project, given the expertise of UNRISD in social policy and in comparative studies, not only in Latin America but all over the world.

What are some examples of social mechanisms that have successfully influenced the decision-making process?
Perhaps a better-known example is participatory budgeting. It represents an arena in which different neighbors and civic associations decide and deliberate over the investments priorities for the current year within a city. The idea of participatory budgeting is for citizens to establish among themselves the priorities, with a focus on a public process of deliberation and negotiation, and on processes that take the previous distribution of public goods among the population of a city into account. Participatory budgeting aims at prioritizing investment to the poor or to sectors of the city that have not had significant access to public goods in the past.

There is a second type of arrangement, social councils. Social councils are quite widespread in Brazil and are perhaps less known than participatory budgeting. There are several types. You have a social council that has been established to address social policies in the areas of health, of education, of social services and of children and adolescent rights. What is important about these institutions is that usually they have decision-making responsibilities, and the decisions are mandatory. In the case of the health council, if there is no agreement over the plan and yearly budget, the municipality will not receive the funds from the federal government. So there is a very strong incentive for these institutions to work and to make decisions every year on investment and the distribution of public funds.

What trends do you see for civil society in Latin America today?
What we are seeing right now is a fundamental push by many actors to move from a very minimal definition of democracy to a stronger notion of democracy. A democracy that not only allows for the existence of a relative number of fundamental freedoms and free elections, but also a democracy that can establish institutions that address not only legal accountability but also social issues. Therefore a great part of analysis on civil society in Latin America today is focusing on to what extent civil society, along with the creation of these spaces I mentioned (health councils and participatory budgeting), can provide one possible way for more inclusive, effective and egalitarian public policies.

I think this is one of the central debates in Latin America today: to what extent these democracies are already consolidated and institutionalized, can move forward and can begin improving their performance, leading to more effective and equitable distribution of public goods.

Listen to the full interview.

If you have suggestions for future interviews, please email us at


Journal of Poverty and Social Justice

While conditionality of social welfare programmes is a longstanding albeit contested issue in social policy debates, its appearance in anti-poverty measures in developing countries is relatively new. The February issue of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice features a themed section on conditionality and social security in a global context, co-edited by Oxford researcher Fran Bennett, UNRISD Research Coordinator Katja Hujo and former UNRISD Research Analyst Elena Gaia.

The Power of Jurisdiction in Promoting Social Policies in Smaller States

Godfrey Baldacchino
Social Policy and Development, Paper No. 45

Translations of UNRISD Publications

Conference News: The Social and Political Dimensions of the Global Crisis: Consequences for Developing Countries
Conference News 25 is now available in French and Spanish.
Conférence Infos: Les dimensions sociales et politiques de la crise mondiale: Conséquences pour les pays en développement
InfoEvento: Las dimensiones social y política de la crisis mundial: Implicaciones para los países en desarrollo

Research and Policy Brief 10: Combating Poverty and Inequality
Research and Policy Brief 10 is now available in French and Spanish.
UNRISD Recherches et politiques – Synthèse 10: Combattre la pauvreté et les inégalités
UNRISD Investigación y política – Síntesis 10: La lucha contra la pobreza y la desigualdad


UNRISD welcomes applications from scholars wishing to spend time at the Institute as visiting research fellows. New guidelines for applying have been posted. UNRISD welcomes, in particular, applications from young researchers from the South.

UNRISD Research Coordinator, Yusuf Bangura, was recently interviewed by Sierra Leone’s CTN Radio on the UNRISD poverty report. "Having the right policies is important," he said, "but their implementation is crucial to lifting people out of poverty."

Former UNRISD Research Analyst, Silke Staab, presented a paper at a seminar on Politics of Care and Development (Santiago, Chile, 7 January 2011). Staab’s presentation focused on childcare programmes in Chile and Mexico. It drew from a jointly authored paper (with Roberto Gerhard, a former UNRISD Visiting Fellow), Childcare Service Expansion in Chile and Mexico: For Women or Children or Both?, published last June.


United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)
Palais des Nations
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Tel: ++41 (0)22 917 3020

If you no longer wish to receive our UNRISD eBulletin, please click here to update your myUNRISD profile

Follow Us
YouTube Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Scribd