Gerry Mangan is the former Director of the Office for Social Inclusion in the Department of Social Protection. Gerry is a member of The Advocacy Initiative Project Management Group.
In this blog Gerry considers some of the constant and long term challenges in advocating for social justice, including the fostering of real commitment to values, such as equality, solidarity and accountability, and basic policy directions and choices based on and informed by these values. Gerry poses the challenge to social justice advocates to 'speak truth to power, not just for individual groups and issues, but from within a genuinely shared social justice framework which would connect the ambitions of all C&V organisations in working for transformative society wide change based on and informed by the goal of social justice.
The 'social justice' dimension of the advocacy process may seem obvious. If we are campaigning on issues that benefit those who are experiencing poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion, then we are doing social justice advocacy. Of course we are. But there are, in my opinion, other more fundamental dimensions to achieving social justice that also need constant advocacy
Values - Equality
A key dimension is values. There are a range of individual, personal values to which we try to adhere, but there are also social values which are crucial in the achievement of social justice. Equality is one such value. It includes ensuring that people are treated equally irrespective of gender, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, faith and belief. It also includes an overriding commitment to the pursuit of economic and social policies designed to secure real equality of opportunity for all and to minimize disparities in income, access to services and overall wealth.
Irish people are noted for displaying real solidarity with family, local community, and in contributing to and supporting organizations in the community and voluntary sector, including those that work in developing countries. A recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study found that compared to other countries we have a high level of volunteering. However we are down the list in terms of the level and quality of State support for those experiencing poverty and social exclusion. I recall some years ago a social policy academic from Belgium remarking to me that he saw a much greater tolerance of poverty in Ireland (and in the UK) than he found in most of the other then EU 15 countries. There is in my opinion a great need to promote a better understanding of the nature and causes of poverty more generally and the connection between the type of State policies the majority of us support and the impact they have on poverty levels. This is key to promoting greater solidarity.
Honesty, Transparency and Accountability
The related values of honesty, transparency, and accountability are fundamental. There is often a polarisation around State policies. Governments 'spin' the merits of their policies, while seldom publicly acknowledging the limits and inadequacies. The opposition and other critics including community and voluntary organisations, focus on the inadequacies, while seldom acknowledging the benefits, the progress being made and the constraints. The media generally consider it their role to highlight the flaws and inadequacies, perhaps in response to an extent to the 'spinning' of Government, also without fully acknowledging the progress. Is it not surprising then that many among the young and those experiencing poverty and social exclusion have lost much faith and trust in politicians and the political process? Perhaps this explains, at least in part, the apathy manifested in the low turnout from these groups at elections? Another related outcome for me is the focus on blame and scapegoating. Yes, we are entitled to be critical of the failings of Government, but we should also acknowledge the constraints. Some are often beyond their control, but others are due to the demands made by powerful interests. Often governments are tied by the electorate more generally who voted for particular policies that make other policies less attainable, including those that would provide more adequate support for people living in poverty. There is also, in my opinion, a great need for accountability all around, based on honesty and transparency. This applies especially to the excesses of the 'Celtic Tiger' era. Those who fail to learn from history are more likely to repeat it.
The policies adopted reflect our values, but values are also formed in part by what is perceived as policy imperatives. For example, it has been argued in recent years that inequality is a necessary price to pay for both economic and social sustainability. This was reflected in the 'Boston and Berlin' policy comparisons that featured during the 'Celtic Tiger' years. Proponents of the 'Boston' approach hold that it provides rapid and sustained economic development through a combination of low taxation, curbing public expenditure and light touch regulation, which in turn creates the resources for social development. The 'Berlin' approach on the other hand involves higher and broader taxation, stricter regulation, with social protection expenditure regarded as a productive factor making a crucial contribution both to economic and social sustainability. From today's perspective it appears that the 'Berlin' approach has not alone provided more sustainable economic development, but also more sustainable social development and equality. However, many continue to argue for the 'Boston' approach.
One significant lesson from recent experience, at least in Europe, is that social protection as an expression of social solidarity and a fundamental contributor to equality is also a major productive factor. It injects demand into the economy, especially during times of recession, through the payment of pensions and benefits that are spent nationwide mainly on home produced goods and services, in contrast to the type of demand created by low taxation for the well off. It develops the productivity of the workforce from childhood up, through education, training, health care and so on. It is a major source of employment across all welfare state services and programmes. The community and voluntary sector in advocating for more and better social protection can, therefore, point not only to the social benefits of social protection, but also to the economic benefits, which are equally important in achieving social justice.
Approaches to Social Protection Policy
Social justice not only requires the right overall approach to economic policy it also needs the right approach to social protection. Effective advocacy, for example, is of the utmost importance, but there is a danger that some groups in society who are most effective at advocating may gain disproportionately. A similar outcome can arise in relation to some services, for example the rates of benefits/pensions can be prioritised, when a better mix of benefits and services would be more effective, especially for the more vulnerable. Experience in other countries has shown that devoting a higher proportion of public expenditure to services such as education, employment training, and child care than to income support can achieve better outcomes in terms of employability and self-sufficiency. Related research has also shown that the single most effective factor in combating child poverty is facilitating the employment of mothers through education and training, suitable employment opportunities and measures to reconcile work and family life, including child care.
Another consideration is universal versus more targeted social protection. Targeted, especially means tested, provision is often regarded as penalising prudence (savings), enterprise (employment/self employment), and honesty (higher benefits and services are gained by those who are less than forthcoming about income, employment participation etc). Universal provision, however, can result in benefits going disproportionately to the better off. Solutions are not easy to find and some people will lose from changes made. In the case of child income support, for example, better targeting and better outcomes could be achieved through taxation of child benefit, and through a unified scheme of supplementary child support for those on low incomes, irrespective of whether they are in employment or on social welfare. More resources for childcare to facilitate parental employment could also be part of a more effective mix of policies for child and family support.
Social Justice Framework
Given the wide range of interests in the community and voluntary sector and the difficult policy choices to be made, it may be helpful to develop a 'social justice framework' as part of the Advocacy Initiative within which individual organizations would advocate in a coordinated and cohesive way for the policies that would best meet the interests of the groups they represent. This framework would incorporate common, agreed values and approaches to overall economic and social policies and their implementation. It would not be set in stone, but on the contrary would be regularly revisited in the light of experience and social and economic developments. Social justice advocacy by the community and voluntary sector, therefore, would not only include advocacy on individual issues for specific groups. It would also include, more fundamentally, speaking 'truth to power', based on the values and policies that the Sector considers promote social justice. This would involve speaking not only to powerful interests, but to the public more generally, who collectively are a major source of power in a democracy.