Dr Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, Director of NatCen International, National Centre for Social Research
Dr Theodoros Papadopoulos, Co-Director of Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy, University of Bath
Over 60 heads of state, among over 2,800 attendees, were in Davos two weeks ago to engage on a wide range of global issues including climate change, health, migration and Artificial Intelligence (AI), all under the theme of “rebuilding trust” across nations. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, described it as 'a time to drive global collaboration more than ever before’. In the eyes of many stakeholders Davos can be full of promise, it is where the wealthiest and most powerful in the world can be lobbied to change policies and drive innovation. It is also the space where inaction on key issues becomes symptomatic of broader and significant failings within the international system. This year is particularly significant because Davos is happening against a backdrop of a very complex global geopolitical, economic and security landscape: heated conflicts around the world, notably in the Middle East and Europe, surging inflation and rising inequalities, and ongoing geopolitical shifts in North-South relations.
We argue that, in the age of polycrises, addressing global challenges not only requires a reimagining of collaborations across nations but that it also necessitates paying serious attention to providing safeguards for social cohesion domestically and cross-nationally to support societies navigate through difficult economic and political times. While we focus on states, and public policies towards their economies, security, and politics, we must also centre the role of social policies - that is, the policies that aim at fostering and safeguarding the cohesion of societies writ large - in our discussions. In referring to social cohesion here, we are referring to “the capacity of a society to ensure the well-being of all its members, minimizing disparities and avoiding marginalization”. Those disparities are complex, multidimensional and feed into one another as we will explain. This focus was often lacking in top-level discussions at Davos, but it was more visible in interventions from the audience. In this blog, we outline two reasons why a focus on social policies within and across countries, often overlooked, needs to be front and centre in global action.
First, pressing global problems such as food insecurity, health inequities, climate change and displacement are deeply intertwined with local contexts. International development and humanitarian thinking are increasingly feeding into domestic policies in wealthier nations and vice versa.
We have seen how international organisations operating out of Britain have started looking domestically in their responses. The response is no longer for crises that are happening elsewhere. For example, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is working in partnership with local councils to provide better integration support to refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants living in the UK from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, Sudan and beyond. At the same time, food insecurity is no longer an international problem. In Britain, the Food Foundation estimated in January 2023 that 24% of households with children were living with food insecurity. More recently, in December 2023, the Child Poverty Action Group reported that 4.2 million British children were living in poverty of which more than one in five were experiencing food insecurity. Indeed, the advanced welfare states of wealthier nations are now facing socio-economic challenges that traditionally were experienced by developing countries. The anxiety and frustration triggered by high levels of socio-economic insecurity and inequality are often combined with fears triggered by the political discourse on increasing numbers of refugees and vulnerable migrants, generating deep social divisions that are exploited politically by extreme groups.
Second, a centring of social policy in global action will be critical to integrating social justice in key agendas such as climate action and environmental sustainability.
As the global society confronts the multiple challenges of a warming planet, it is evident that addressing them requires far more than just environmental policies. Ensuring a fair distribution of the costs and consequences associated with climate change requires environmental sustainability practices to be integrated with social justice measures. This integration is crucial not only on a global scale, between developed and developing nations, but also within nations, by addressing economic and wealth disparities among socio-economic groups and classes. For example, the steel industry in Port Talbot is the UK's biggest single carbon emitter. Under pressure to move away from the plant's existing coal-powered blast furnaces to a greener form of steel-making using an electric-arc furnace which are efficient but also will be highly automated. This has resulted in the potential loss of thousands of jobs as the manual workers are not needed anymore. While the environmental impact is vastly reduced, and carbon emissions are significantly lowered the socio-economic impact on the community can be devastating. It can be easily predicted that environmental policies that do not consider their potential socio-economic impacts on different social classes will generate political frictions, deepen social divisions and result in the emboldening of extremist political views with unpredictable consequences
Rebuilding Societies to Rebuild Trust
To rebuild trust between nations on addressing global problems, a social cohesion lens is necessary. In the face of the polycrisis, a holistic approach is imperative. Placing social cohesion at the heart of strategic collaborations and measures to address global challenges is necessary so we can build the foundations for a future that is both fair and sustainable and secure a just transition that benefits all, regardless of national or social boundaries.