1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009), Markets, Business and Regulation (2000 - 2009)

Social Responses to Inequalities and Policy Changes

  • Project from: 2006 to 2008


This project investigated social and policy responses in the EU to inequality in the wider context of global issues. In particular it asked what are the implications of the evolving patterns of contestation and activism for policy and institutional reform associated with macroeconomic policies and TNCs. Are we seeing, at both international and national policy levels, signs of a shift from more orthodox to more heterodox approaches that accommodate certain demands for policy change emanating from grassroots groups, NGOs, trade unions and social movements? To what extent, and in what ways, are traditional political and policy actors and institutions responding through policy and institutional reforms that have important implications for global and national inequalities?

Description of Work

This project examined the nature of social contestation, activism and policy change related to a number of areas of macroeconomic policy and institutional reform. These included: development aid, debt relief, international taxation (cf. Tobin tax), foreign direct investment, privatisation and corporate accountability. In addition, the research considered aspects related to activism around the question of international trade barriers and subsidies, solidarity economy and poverty. The research focused in particular on the activist policy nexus in the United Kingdom and France. The evolving national context as well as obstacles to policy influence were assessed together with the recent international initiatives and debates around which the key civil society movements were able to relate their philosophical argumentation and devise measures for political pressure (e.g., MDG negotiations, trade talks etc.).

Task 1: Contestation and activism related to macroeconomic policy and TNCs:

The research examined the nature of social contestation and activism centred on actual or perceived situations of inequality and marginalization related to macroeconomic policy and the activities of Trans-national Corporations. This component described the type of conflicts that have arisen; examined patterns of civil society organization and mobilization, addressing what are their usual social bases, key allies, range of activities and their sustainability? How are internal divisions, institutional weaknesses and financial and human resource needs handled?

The task also identified the different types of policy demands and proposals emanating from different groups and networks, assessing the viability of CSO groups to push for alternative policy proposals and their successful implementation in the face of rigid power structures, frequently differing interests of participating organizations and the momentary nature of public support.

The research did not focus only on organizations, but also on the broad movement within the wider processes of social change. It compares and analyses the nature, composition, influence and outcome of selected movements in France and the UK.

Task 2: Interaction with policy actors and the policy process:

How have mainstream political actors and policy makers responded to conflict and activism associated with macroeconomic reform and TNCs? The project attempted to understand the relationship between activism and policy change, and assessed the extent to which ideas and pressures emanating from civil society actors and situations involving protest and resistance influenced mainstream political actors and policy makers, in particular, those associated with political parties, parliaments and governments. More specifically, the research proposed to collect and analyse information on the following aspects: parliamentary adoption of relevant laws and policies; budgetary provisions; establishment of specialized institutions; organization of special events; data collection and studies to increase debate and propose policies; wider interactions with civil society and social movements; awareness-raising and mobilization of public opinion; elaboration of time-bound strategies.

The study not only ascertained the level of policy commitment but also considered its quality and sustainability. Are policy changes basically cosmetic and politically opportunistic, or are they of a more fundamental nature, in terms of their potential to impact North-South inequalities and global democratic governance? Another critical question for research was how changes in official policy discourse and formal policy decisions impinge on the nature of activism and CSO movements. Specifically, how are their structures and long-term functioning affected? For example, is there a trend towards increased NGOization of some movements, thereby having to institutionalise and moderate their key demands?


A series of detailed studies were carried out on each of the six areas of CSO activism in the countries selected. In addition to the analyses of publicly available sources (like surveys and opinion polls) and documents, Internet Web sites and press reports, key players were interviewed when necessary. In order to understand the relationship of activism to policy change, the research paid particular attention to concrete policy and institutional reforms that have occurred, for example, major debt relief initiatives, significant increases in overseas development assistance, measures related to company social or sustainability reporting, and government responses to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The research identified the civil society actors, networks and movements engaged with these issues; their relations with governmental and parliamentary institutions and political parties; their relations with other societal actors and the nature of coalitions and alliances; the extent of institutional and elite resistance to policy change and activist demands; and the participation of civil society organizations and activists in epistemic communities that influence government policy.

Drawing on certain types of institutional and political economy analysis, the research adopted a comparative approach to understand variations in the nature of activism and activist demands, relations between civil society actors and policy makers, and the nature of policy responses in the UK and France. Such an approach involved paying particular attention to differences in colonial history; ideologies and policy approaches to overseas development, economic liberalization and TNCs; the nature of social pacts and the correlation of social forces; path dependency; and evolving patterns of state-business-civil society relations.

The principal methodological difficulty for research was how to reflect the relative influence of CSO activism vis-à-vis other civil society institutions and organized interests including, for example, business interests and scientific and academic institutions. Likewise, while the key movements appear quite political in their social composition and strategic argumentation, their proposals and campaigns tend to focus more on economic reforms as opposed to changes in power relations and structures. How do we explain this? Furthermore, social movements theory suggests that movements are driven and sustained by actors immediately affected by injustice, exclusion and inequality. How sustainable, therefore, are northern-based or transnational movements that are driven primarily by actors who are not directly affected by such conditions, and what are the implications of this reality for theoretical debate?


This research project was integrated under the project “Inequality: Mechanisms, Effects and Policies” (INEQ), part of the Sixth Framework Program, Priority 7 – Citizens and Governance in a Knowledge Based Society, financed by the European Union.