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United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Social development:
From research to policy to action

Concept Paper: Management of Social Transformations (MOST): Round Table of Ministers of Social Development, 16-17 July 2007, UNESCO, Paris

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

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Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: why do we need new links between research and policy?

Within the framework of the MOST programme, UNESCO is committed to an ongoing effort to strengthen the research-policy nexus, acting in particular through the International Forum on the Social Science – Policy Nexus (IFSP) and the Regional Fora of Ministers of Social Development. This “nexus” is a profoundly practical concern: whether they realize it or not, policy makers need enhanced links between research and policy because, in their absence, policies are unlikely to attain their objectives.

As an example, consider the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which constitute a key component of the current international agenda in the areas of social policy and development. As adopted in 2000 by the United Nations, the MDGs express clearly and concisely a diagnosis of the most urgent priorities that the world faces; a statement of the reasons why “business as usual” is likely to produce profoundly unacceptable – and ultimately dangerous – outcomes; and, finally, a set of quantified indicators to ensure that the international community can be held accountable for its action towards the MDGs.

The unfinished business in this respect is not simply to move from rhetorical commitment to practical engagement but also to improve the capacity to act effectively against the evils that the MDGs were formulated to address. Well-meaning policies are, no doubt, better than selfish or cynical ones. But the history of development is littered with the toxic waste of well-meaning policies that, through ignorance, naivety or wilful disregard for established social-science knowledge, made things worse, not better. The challenge is therefore to establish a new basis for policy that takes account of its indispensable anchoring in rigorous knowledge about how societies actually work and recognizes at once the primary and irreducible responsibility of states for the welfare of their citizens and the essential contribution of civil society at all levels.

In this respect, the MDGs are merely a striking and urgent example of a more general problem. Shifting the whole configuration of “development” policy, which is what is actually required, has both practical and conceptual implications. In practical terms, the aim of “bringing together” actors with possibly quite different expectations, agendas, and preconceptions, calls for the creation of an appropriate kind of space. Similarly, the aim of building on the encounter to establish innovative policy processes requires agreement on, and common commitment to, appropriately designed mechanisms. The conceptual issues bring into play a number of problems – some familiar, some less well researched – in the social sciences. The research-policy “nexus” is an encounter between actors with different profiles; it is a junction between processes that respond to different dynamics; it is a mediation between different social languages. In respect of each of these features, the reasons why it does not operate seamlessly can be clarified by reference to extensive research from a number of disciplines.

Furthermore, commitment to a more dynamic and better integrated research-policy nexus has normative significance. Governance templates that base policy exclusively on “expertise” implicitly dismiss the contribution of participatory mechanisms to policy development. There are reasons to regard such a perspective as favouring specific forms of policy failure. Dealing with them, conversely, requires serious attention to questions of accountability and empowerment within the process of producing knowledge for policy and, in particular, to the role of civil society in promoting non-technocratic forms of expertise. Governments, academics and civil society organizations can and should work together to establish new modes of governance that enhance, rather than dilute, political responsibility.

The purpose of this document is to review the empirical and conceptual basis for such new modes of governance, focusing in particular on the problems of social policy. The key principle can be stated very simply: the knowledge appropriate for accountable policies that actually work is necessarily co-produced by governments, academics and civil society. Justifying, qualifying and elaborating this claim, however, requires considerable social science work. Furthermore, what remains to be clarified at the policy level constitutes the distinctive objective of the MOST programme: the innovative mechanisms that might make such co-production possible. By discussing how to establish innovative social policy partnerships and how to make them work, it should be possible to establish a better platform for exchange between actors and between regions, to clarify institutional best practices and, by preparing appropriate publications to disseminate lessons to wider audiences, to facilitate movement towards a shared agenda on the issues raised by the Buenos Aires process.

This agenda gives rise to practical challenges at four distinct levels, which cannot be addressed if they are kept separate:

  • knowledge for policy,
  • evidence-based policy,
  • the relation between advocacy and action, and
  • participation and governance.
This document discusses each in turn.

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