Kuhnle, Selle and Hort (eds), Globalizing Welfare

Stein Kuhnle, Per Selle and Sven E.O. Hort (eds), Globalizing Welfare: An evolving Asian-European dialogue, Edward Elgar, 2019, xii + 350 pp, hbk, 1 78897 583 4, £105

‘The welfare state is essentially a European invention’ (p. 1). Well, yes and no. Early versions can be found in ancient Israel, in India and Rome two millennia ago, in seventh century BCE Islamic law, and so on. The modern European welfare state is of course a European invention: and what this book convincingly shows is that the modern European welfare state is diverse; that it has now globalized; that there is now considerable global diversity; and that similar debates relating to ageing populations, welfare state sustainability, and so on, are now global as well. The aim of this well-researched book is to contribute to a dialogue between European and Asian welfare states. It does this by surveying welfare state developments in (South) Korea, China, Hong Kong, Japan, the Nordic countries, and Germany, and then adding chapters on more general themes.

Following an introductory chapter, chapter 2 studies South Korea’s slow transition towards a more universal welfare state ( – see below on contributors’ diverse uses of the word ‘universal’). Unfortunately, because the chapter concentrates on central government activity to the exclusion of more local invitiatives, it misses the important Seongnam unconditional youth dividend for a single age cohort, and the current proposal to extend this initiative to the whole province of Gyeonggi. [1] Chapters 3 and 4 study the development of the Chinese welfare state, compare it with that of the Nordic states, and find that China exhibits ‘moderate universalism’. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the more neo-liberal trajectories of Hong Kong and Japan; and chapter 7 studies welfare states in Denmark, Japan and China in relation to the role of women, and finds that in all of them women remain the main caregivers in the domestic sphere.

In the second part of the book, chapter 9 locates the stability of the Nordic welfare state in the idea of the state as a society; chapter 10 finds that globalisation is not necessarily a threat to the Nordic welfare state, but that the integration of refugees into the workforce has been challenging; and chapter 11 discusses Nordic welfare states’ attempts to institutionalise gender equality in a context of a freedom of choice agenda and diverse and shifting social forces related to the family. Chapter 12 studies childcare provision in Denmark, and chapter 13 finds shifting emphases on universalism, reciprocity and targeting in relation to pensions in Nordic states. Chapters 14 and 15 discuss the role of the voluntary sector in Germany and Norway respectively: and it might have been helpful to have constructed a separate section in the book so that these two chapters and the current chapter 8, a study of the increasingly commercial orientation of non-profit organisations in Japan, might have been grouped together.

The third part of the book tackles more general welfare state themes, and here the book ranges more widely than the Nordic states and East Asia. Chapter 16 discusses the ways in which welfare states have and have not addressed broader gender inequalities; and chapter 17 takes Belarus as a case study of an ‘authoritarian-populist’ welfare state – although how the authors can conclude that the social insurance and local social assistance systems of Belarus constitute a ‘distorted universal basic income laboratory’ (p. 296) is somewhat difficult to fathom. Chapter 18 explores the paradox that egalitarian policies are good for everyone, but are resisted across society, and suggests that social policy framed as ‘social investment’ might alleviate the problem; and chapter 19 asks about the relationships between inequalities, welfare policies, and right-wing populism.

It might have been helpful if such terms as ‘populism’ and ‘universal/universalism’, which appear frequently in the book, had been clearly defined by the editors, and if those definitions had been referenced and adhered to by the contributors. The former sometimes means right-wing populism, and sometimes simply popular, and the latter sometimes means unconditional provision for every resident, and sometimes a scheme that in principle covers every resident but does not necessarily benefit everyone, or everyone in the same way.

The editors conclude that common challenges include ageing populations, migration, labour market changes, changes in the role of the family, changing relationships between government, market, and third sector organisations, growing inequality, political and social instability, and the rise of a populism that wishes to exclude a variety of social groups from welfare state provisions: all trends driven by globalisation.

The book is an important contribution to an important debate.

[1] Gunmin Yi, ‘Korean Experiments’, pp. 418-21 in the Palgrave International Handbook of Basic Income, edited by Malcolm Torry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).