Global Social Policy in the Making: The foundations of the social protection floor, by Bob Deacon

Policy Press, 2013, xii + 218 pp, 1 4473 1233 8, hbk, £70, 1 4473 1234 5, pbk, £24.99

In a world in which so many bad things happen, and in which so much media and academic reporting is of bad news, it is a real pleasure to read a good news story well told: for that is what this book is – a well-written report of a piece of very good news: that in 2012 the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the G20 agreed a proposal for global social protection floors (adapted to the circumstances of each country).

So the book is in effect a single extended case study: and as the story is told we discover the internal dynamics of the ILO and of other international organisations, the relationships between the international institutional actors, and the other influences that led to the recommendation.

Of particular interest is a handful of individuals whose personal interests were particularly significant as the social protection floor policy evolved. Some of these individuals were in leadership positions in the ILO, but some were simply in significant positions in the organisation at the right time to reinforce existing trends. So, for instance, Deacon charts how an appreciation of the benefits of universal social provision had re-emerged as a neoliberal means-tested safety-net stance began to reveal its disbenefits, and how an influence on this process was Guy Standing’s work as head of a relevant departmental subsection. But however significant individuals might have been, the logic of the changing context comes across as an even more significant factor. The ILO’s focus was, and still is, on ‘labour’, so social insurance schemes have understandably received more attention than other social security provision. The increasing precarity of the labour market (another focus of Guy Standing’s work) has revealed the inadequacy of social insurance as the only or main social security mechanism, and has also revealed the benefits that universal benefits and services might offer.

Much of the book is about which organisation did or said what, and if this kind of narrative does not interest you then by all means skim some of this material: but don’t miss the way in which individuals, context and alliances can generate significant change within organisations such as the ILO; and don’t miss the ways in which one changing organisation can, in the midst of a changing social and economic context, contribute to change in other organisations – including the World Bank, where a process of change was facilitated by a change of leadership at the same time as the context and the ILO were changing.

The case study is of course a particular one, but it offers more general lessons, and Deacon is right to suggest that the study provides evidence for an ‘ASIP’ understanding of social policy formation: ‘agency, structure, institutions and discourses’ (p.143). If all four factors are moving in the same direction then policy might well change.

Social policy both will and must become more global: it will, because organisations that relate closely to each other increasingly behave like each other; and it must, because labour market, economic and social change will continue to be influenced by globalisation and by global financial institutions. This book is an excellent preparation for further study of globalising social policy, not only of the specific principles represented by the social protection floor recommendation – ‘universality of protection, based on social solidarity; entitlement to benefits prescribed by national law; non-discrimination …’ etc. (p.98) – but also of the factors affecting a direction of travel.

The story related here suggests a trajectory in the direction of universal provision. It will be interesting to see whether the trajectory can be maintained; and also whether the lessons will be learnt in relation to social security benefits. Increasing labour market precarity means that social insurance schemes will be increasingly irrelevant; the disincentives and other disbenefits of means-tested systems will be increasingly obvious; and universal benefits will be increasingly relevant. If this discourse becomes more widespread, if sufficient numbers of people in significant positions understand it, and if institutions and structures find themselves moving in more universalist directions, then we could well see a Citizen’s Income either nationally or regionally sooner than we might think.