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Social Policy and Development Programme Paper 17: The Developmental Welfare State in Scandinavia: Lessons for the Developing World

6 Jan 2005

  • Authors: Stein Kuhnle, Sven E. O. Hort

Is there a Scandinavian route from the era of semi-feudal societies and absolutist states to contemporary societies with democratic regimes, affluent economies and comprehensive welfare states? This paper traces crucial steps in the history of the Scandinavian welfare state from its early beginnings in the late nineteenth century to the present time. Particular attention is drawn to the general adherence to the principle of universalism.

The post-Second World War comprehensive welfare state is characterized by the principle of universalism and a strong role for the state and local government. The Scandinavian experience shows that a strong social role for the state is not incommensurate with economic development — it shows that economic growth and the institutionalization of comprehensive social security and welfare services programmes could develop hand in hand.

The construction of the modern welfare state in Scandinavia was gradual and a continuous balancing act between stimulating economic development and promoting social justice. During periods of recent economic downturn, modifications were made to programmes and benefit structures, and some programmes were expanded.

The Scandinavian welfare state has remained comprehensive and generous. The welfare state remains popular, and most politicians from various political parties defend it on moral, political and economic grounds. The characteristics and goals of the Scandinavian welfare state may not be universal, but the Scandinavian route to a modern democratic welfare state offers some general lessons as to interrelationships between political, economic and social development.

Stein Kuhnle is professor of comparative politics, University of Bergen, Norway. Sven E.O. Hort is acting Vice President and professor of sociology at Södertörn University College in Sweden.

Order SPDPP 17 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).