Journal Article

Global Social Policy 16

Is Targeting Ethical?

Published on 25 April 2016

Targeting as a mechanism for allocating scarce public resources efficiently and equitably has recently come under sustained attack, for both pragmatic reasons – the apparent impossibility of achieving perfect targeting accuracy – and ethical reasons – social divisiveness and perceptions that excluding some people from benefits is socially unjust. Universalism is offered as a fairer and more inclusive alternative, although universal programmes are sometimes erroneously conflated with categorically targeted programmes (such as social pensions for all older persons).

This article critically examines the ‘targeting’ versus ‘universalism’ debate, drawing on three principles of redistributive justice – equality, equity and need. A trifurcated approach to social policy is proposed: the equality principle (universal provision) should be applied to essential social services; equity (payments proportionate to contributions) are appropriate for social insurance schemes, but social safety nets or social welfare grants should be allocated on the basis of need (vulnerable groups or poverty).


Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Publication details

published by
Sage Journals
Devereux, S.
Global Social Policy, volume 16, issue 2


About this publication

Programmes and centres
Centre for Social Protection

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