Working Paper

Imagining ‘the social’: Social Policy Analysis for the Poor in Poor Countries

Published on 1 January 2004

This paper begins by reviewing the different meanings given to the concept of ‘the social’ within the development policy discourse over the past half century in order to delineate the domain of ‘social policy’ in the context of developing countries.

This review suggests that the ‘social’ dimensions of public policy relate to those aspects which bear on how societies reproduce themselves at different levels: at the micro-level of individuals and their capabilities; at the meso level of institutions and social relations; and at the macro level of the societal structures of production and reproduction.

Institutions are critical within this understanding of ‘social policy’ because they mediate the processes by which societies translate the resources at their disposal into the individual and societal outcomes which are of interest to policy-makers.

The paper develops an analytical framework organised around the concepts of institutions and institutional access in order to explore the factors which help to explain the experience of different countries in their attempts to translate economic resources into social outcomes.

The paper suggests that, while variations in performance reflect a range of historical, political and economic factors, ideological adherence to either state-centred or market-driven approaches to social need have in the past prevented consideration of policy options more tailored to the pattern of local need, particularly the needs of poor and excluded groups. In practice, social need has been met in diverse ways by diverse groups so that the reality on the ground has been one of welfare pluralism.

Managing this pluralism from a citizen-centred perspective offers a promising route to a more inclusive social policy for the future. The paper concludes by considering what some of the elements of such an approach might be.


Naila Kabeer

Emeritus Fellow

Publication details

published by
Kabeer, N.
IDS Working Paper, issue 191
1 85864 497 6


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