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Festival of ideas on transformative social policy

“Ideas have to conspire with power to effect change.” This is the route towards making social policies in Africa transformative, according to Prof Jimi Adesina, incumbent of the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Social Policy at Unisa.

Speakers, participants, and attendees of the Social Policy in Africa Conference co-hosted by the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Social Policy at Unisa, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), and the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

The Chair, in partnership with the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), hosted the Social Policy in Africa Conference from 20 to 22 November 2017.

In welcoming the broad representation of participants from across the globe, Professor Michelle Havenga, Executive Dean of the College of Graduate Studies at Unisa, highlighted how transformative social policy is a key policy instrument to ensure sustainable and equitable development.

Tackling Africa’s socio-economic challenges

Africa is the second most populous continent in the world, burdened with severe socio-economic challenges.

A new social movement formed to combat these challenges is transformational social policy (TSP), which examines the role of social policy in the structural transformation of society, looking into the economy, society, social institutions and social relations in totality.

TSP places its emphasis on multiple tasks of social policy, namely reproduction, redistribution and social cohesion/nation building. In playing a significant role in the context of development, TSP is grounded in the framing of social policy with the norms of equality and solidarity, in conjunction with economic policy.

“Universities, research institutions, policy institutions and think tanks ought to forge enduring partnerships in order to combine their resources and competencies to generate knowledge and search for answers in response to our developmental challenges,” said Prof Mandla Makhanya, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, at the Social Policy in Africa Conference.

Prof Jimi Adesina (Incumbent: DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Social Policy)

Top-level speakers

The conference, a flagship project of the SARChI Chair in Social Policy, had a line-up of eminent scholars as keynote speakers. Among them were Professor Thandika Mkandawire of the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom, Professor Omotade Akin Aina of the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research in Kenya, and Dr Katja Hujo of UNRISD in Switzerland.

This initiative served as a platform for the dissemination of research findings (including the work the SARChI Chair in Social Policy has done in relation to the TSP). The aim is to raise awareness, create a critical mass of scholarship around the TSP framework, and facilitate research/policy dialogue using the framework.

In plenary and break-away sessions, topics discussed included nation building, inequality and poverty, welfare and wellbeing, health systems and healthcare reforms, social policy theory and methods, social policy dimensions of land reform, social insurance and income maintenance, capability and migration.

“Having social policy in place is a vital part of spearheading economic development,” said Mkandawire, in his address on framing social policy in a development context. He further said that a cooperative relationship between social and economic policy can mutually reinforce interaction that enhances human wellbeing. It is also important to advocate for improvement in the productive capacity of citizens through public investment in spheres such as education, healthcare and housing.

“Combating poverty, inequality and environmental destruction requires transformative change that directly attacks the root causes of these problems instead of the symptoms,” said Hujo, discussing the topic of rethinking social policy in Africa.

During the conference, she launched the UNRISD 2016 flagship report on innovative partnerships for extending health services, such as community-based health insurance in Rwanda and the eco-social policy in India known as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

Author and research coordinator at UNRISD, Dr IIcheong Yi, presented policy-relevant findings from his book, titled Towards universal health care in emerging economies.

The Transformative Social Policy Research Network (TSP-Net) was also launched at the conference, with the aim of creating a network of intellectuals with policy influence.

*By Mpho Moloele