1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development, Transformative Social Policy

Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization

  • Project from: 2018 to 2020

Inequalities are one of today’s greatest challenges, obstructing poverty reduction and sustainable development. Such disparities are catalysed by elite capture of economic and political power, a reinforcing process that compounds inequality, which—in its various dimensions—undermines social, environmental and economic sustainability, and fuels poverty, insecurity, crime and xenophobia. As the power of elites grows and societal gaps widen, institutions representing the public good and universal values are increasingly disempowered or co-opted, and visions of social justice and equity side-lined. As a result, society is fracturing in ways that are becoming more and more tangible, with the growing divide between the privileged and the rest dramatically rearranging both macro structures and local lifeworlds.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seeks to overcome such inequalities, “leaving no one behind”. How can the transformative change envisioned in the 2030 Agenda take place? What are the drivers of inequalities and the institutional factors that perpetuate them? What are the consequences at local, national and global levels? And what needs to be done to overcome these challenges? The project examines contemporary cases of progressive policy reforms leading to sustainable development outcomes, and the conditions that enable or hinder them. The findings will inform policy makers, practitioners and activists working for more inclusive, sustainable and just societies.


The objective of the project is to identify contemporary strategies being used to mobilize diverse political actors and social groups for transformative change. The research critically explores forms of engagement that are pushing back against inequalities, exclusion and cleavages—from state actors, to organized interests, to intersectional social movements, to local governance initiatives, to transnational forms of citizenship—in order to identify ways to design and deliver a 21st century eco-social compact and the necessary enabling conditions.

The project aims to respond to the following key questions:
  • What role do elites and institutions of power play in the deepening of social and economic cleavages across the globe?
  • How have these inequalities reshaped structures from the local to the transnational level, and what consequences (economic, political, environmental, human) do they pose for a city, a country, a specific group, or individual lives, as well as the ecosystems they inhabit?
  • What examples exist of peaceful processes of policy change that have made societies greener and more socially just, levelled out social stratification, and devolved power and resources from elites to non-elites, or towards marginalized or discriminated groups, and what were the drivers in those processes?

The research methodology will be designed collaboratively with partners and will include both quantitative and qualitative methods.


Wealth concentration at the top, popularly referred to as the 1% economy, is now a global process girded by a neoliberal economic orientation, rapid technological change, weak global tax cooperation, the erosion of labour rights, and corporate capture of political processes and state institutions. This reinforcing process compounds inequalities across various dimensions, fuelling poverty, insecurity, crime and xenophobia, and threatening social, environmental and economic sustainability. Despite concerted efforts to promote more inclusive development, economic and political drivers of inequality obstruct progress. As elites gain a prominent foothold in political processes, whether directly or indirectly, they often act to preserve and perpetuate a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many, halting the possibilities for equitable redistribution. At the same time as the power of elites grows and societal gaps are widening, institutions representing the public good and universal values are increasingly disempowered or co-opted, and visions of social justice and equity side-lined. While progressive tides strengthened social contracts around the globe in the post-war era, the current moment is seeing a breakdown of such contracts. Many states are reducing social spending as part of austerity measures, rolling back rights for people and communities while granting privileges and protections to the business sector, supplanting meaningful spaces of civic engagement with divisive populist rhetoric, and shrinking public spaces.

As a result, society is fracturing in ways that are becoming more and more tangible, with the growing divide between the privileged and the rest dramatically rearranging both macro structures and local lifeworlds. These cleavages have eroded social cohesion, citizenship practices and trust in public institutions, leaving deep fault lines that manifest economically, politically, socially and spatially. As a consequence, governments are increasingly perceived to lack capacity to foster inclusive development and to protect the well-being and rights of their citizens in a rapidly changing and increasingly uncertain world.

Key Research Concerns

In the context of these entrenched inequalities, what will drive progressive change and push forward the vision of the 2030 Agenda? While in the past progressive policy change in industrialized democracies was often steered by broad cross-class coalitions between popular and middle classes that effectively pressured elites, over the last 40 years we have witnessed the slow but continuous unravelling of this 20th century social contract. However, those social and economic forces that underpinned progressive policy change take a very different shape today, as economic systems have evolved, identities have shifted, new forms of politics have unfolded and new conceptions of class have arisen.

And while such spaces for progressive change have been closed, new ones are constrained by a range of factors: governments with a developmental and redistributive stance are increasingly stripped of resources and policy space in the context of neoliberal globalization and recurrent crises; middle classes are either moving towards precarity or increasingly align with elite interests; identity groups among popular and middle classes are regularly pitted against each other by nationalist and xenophobic discourses; the voice of the demos has begun to weigh less and less as the overwhelming economic dominance of elite sectors takes hold of political processes; and while recent social movements such as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Indignados, Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo Campaign, to name a few, have sprung up out of reinterpreted visions of citizenship, their long-term political impact is still an issue of inquiry.

What is needed to overcome resistance and obstacles towards transformation and to forge the progressive alliances that will be necessary to support a path of profound reform towards sustainable and equitable development? What type of policies and institutions are needed to level the playing field and to promote meaningful participation, voice and empowerment of less powerful actors and groups? How can effective and durable national and global compacts be forged between the multiple stakeholders addressed in the SDGs? If the 2030 Agenda is to achieve success, it must move beyond the 20th century compact in two crucial aspects: first, by extending the social contract beyond the Global North and ensuring the expansion of rights to all, including the historically marginalized, such as women, informal workers and minorities; and second, by shifting and restructuring economies and societies to halt climate change and environmental destruction. Given these imperatives, the 21st century compact envisioned by Agenda 2030 must be nothing less than an eco-social compact.

Activities and Outputs


Research outputs

Strategic outputs

Workstream: Universities and Social Inequalities in the Global South

Following a Call for Expressions of Interest launched in January of 2019, UNRISD has commissioned six papers to feed into the development of a proposal for a research project that focuses on the role of universities in lessening—or, indeed, reinforcing—social inequalities in low- and middle-income countries.

Research Papers
Research and Policy Brief
Universities and Social Inequalities in the Global South (June 2021)

Webinar (view on YouTube)
Universities and Social Inequalities in the Global South (June 2021)

For more information about the project, please click here.