Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Globalisation and Social Policy: International actors, discourses and governance

Time (GMT +00) 00:00 23:59


Professor Bob Deacon.

1. Professor Bob Deacon, Director of the Globalism and Social Policy Programme based jointly in Sheffield and Helsinki, was the guest speaker in the fourth of the series of meetings organised by ODI under the theme of Global Governance.

2. Professor Deacon began by discussing the role which globalisation was having on the north. States had become increasingly concerned with competition rather than welfare and the issue of globalisation raised many complex issues about how to tax and spend in order to deliver a credible social policy. There were, according to Professor Deacon, two competing schools of thought over the impact of globalisation on social policy. There were those 'prophets of doom' who foresaw globalisation as destroying social policy and there were those that saw the twin issues of globalisation and social policy as being perfectly compatible. Common ground existed on certain issues, such as the need to shift away from labour and towards value-added and land taxation. Globalisation had also created a low-skill low-wage segment within the labour market, a new problem in many developed countries, which was vulnerable and impoverished and required governments to think about ways of linking the wages and benefits system.

3. Economies such as those of Germany and France had been most challenged by globalisation, whereas Anglo-Saxon economies (such as the UK) had been much more able to 'run with the tide'. The least challenged by globalisation had been the Scandinavian models of social democracy and this realisation (a contentious one) had shown that it was perfectly possible to combine an effective social policy in the face of rapid globalisation.

4. The social cost of globalisation was now being talked about in 'important places' such as the OECD, and a consensus was building up that globalisation meant there needed to be more, not less, social protection. Within this process, the European Union had been and would be of paramount importance. Professor Deacon went on to discuss several parts of the 'discordant discourse' on globalisation. The World Bank for example, was now developing a social dimension, which although welcome, resulted in two worrying issues. The first was an over-emphasis on targeting the poor which tended to exclude the middle classes from social policy, and their inclusion had always been historically critical. Secondly, the World Bank was increasingly pushing a policy of individualising risk, for example by promoting individual over state pensions in many countries.

6. Another issue has been the development of poverty targets by the OECD DAC, and their use by other international agencies. Whilst Professor Deacon understood the thinking behind this and agreed with the sentiments, he pointed out that social policy was about a lot more than just eradicating the very worst excesses of poverty and care had to be taken that this issue did not limit the scope of enquiry.

7. Within the debate surrounding 'rights' and human rights in particular, Professor Deacon identified three issues of interest. Firstly, that in the past the World Bank had been hypocritical with certain countries, especially those in Africa, by preaching human and social rights and yet restricting the ability of governments to provide for those rights by insisting on rigid structural adjustment policies. Secondly, that even writing down a set of human rights is a useful process and thirdly, that an articulation of social rights within human rights was emerging.

8. The final issue within the 'discordant discourse' on globalisation which Professor Deacon discussed was the potential conflict between environmental and social policy. There were 'win-win' options in this area such as moves towards 'eco-taxes', and global agreement was needed on these issues, just as there needed to be global agreement on the need to tax international capital flows.

9. Pulling together the various disparate parts of the discourse on globalisation was a difficult process as they often spoke a separate language. Yet Professor Deacon was confident that the intellectual groundwork was being laid by a strong alliance of concerned governments, NGOs and recently strengthened UN agencies. A common intellectual ground now existed where once the ideology of liberalism stood unchallenged. The Asian economic crisis has hastened that process, but not caused it.

10. How to deliver on this vision of social policy was the next difficult task. A reform of global governance was required, and a good place to begin this topic was to ask what institutions we would like and what policies we would like these institutions to implement? Mr. Deacon felt that the European Union could act as model for a reformed global governance structure, with its linking of governmental, institutional and legislative arms. The problem, as Mr. Deacon saw it, was with the international civil service, who were generally opposed to change and/or wanted change in different areas.

11. On the question of which policies to introduce, Professor Deacon felt that the first step needed to be a greater synergy between regional, governmental and global policies. The nuts and bolts of any national social policy was made up of redistribution, empowerment and regulation, and a global social policy would need to built on the same principles. There existed the signs of such a global policy, with discussions on carbon emission taxes and the current response to the climatic disaster in Central America.

12. Progress on linking trade, aid and standards (labour and environmental) was being stifled by a sceptical attitude from southern governments. This could be overcome by northern governments opening up trade with developing countries, on condition that certain labour and environmental standards were met, and in conjunction with aid to meet those standards.

13. To conclude, Professor Deacon felt that his optimism and enthusiasm for a global social policy was made possible by his not being involved directly with any of the international organisations. Progress on this issue would be made when national confrontation is avoided, and that would occur when: global social rights were articulated; global minimum standards were set, for example by the ILO on child labour; there existed a common language for social policy; and there existed a set of common social policy objectives. Each of these issues constituted one small step on the road toward implementing a 're-vamped social democracy'.

14. Questions from the floor came in the areas of whether the West should blackmail or persuade the developing world to adopt minimum standards; how to incorporate international businesses into a social policy given their level of power; the World Bank's merits and demerits in this process; whether social policy and development can be divorced; how to ensure new types of taxation are progressive; the important roles of ethnicity, gender and class in social policy; and the role of the historical development path in defining a nation's social policy. The mood of the audience was that whilst a global social policy was possible, delivering the required institutions and policies would be both difficult and controversial.


Professor Deacon discussed the role which globalisation was having on the north.