The politics of rights-based, transformative social policy in South and Southeast Asia

Gabriele Koehler

Volume 70 (2017), Issue 4

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A key normative principle of transformative social policy is that it is rights-based. This implies that it be universal, as a right extended categorically to all persons in a defined situation, or to all citizens, or, in its most radical form, as applicable to all residents regardless of citizenship status. To be transformative, social policy also needs to tackle the root causes of inequalities and social injustices. In the recent past, approaches emerged in a number of countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia that pointed in the direction of universal, rights-based social policy. These suggest that a “social turn” took place – a shift to ideas and policies that prioritize social issues. In the cases under review (India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand), the trends towards a universal, rights-based approach to social services and social transfers were in each case politically driven and a result of changes in government – the social turns were the outcome of contestation. At present, these countries are experiencing political backlashes, with democratic processes and civil society under severe attack. This article seeks to make two points. First, a rights-based, transformative policy approach and a social turn do not come automatically: it is always the result of contestation, be it from the electorate and their interests groups, or from competition between political parties. Second, acquired rights and moves towards transformation can be dismantled. In the current global political rollback, there is a need to defend and fight for transformative and rights-based social policy.

Social policies & programmes
social policy
social change
political aspect
legal aspect