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Tackling inequalities at source or perpetuating them: social investment strategy debated

The aim of social investment is to prevent vulnerability by intervening right from the start of the life course. In the presence of very eminent experts in the field, an international conference and a round table discussion will assess this strategy, which is growing in Europe and elsewhere, but is still largely undeveloped in Swiss institutions and is also the subject of some criticism. The conference will take place on 10 and 11 April 2014 at the University of Lausanne.

Investing in the development of skills from early childhood enables the welfare state to significantly reduce its expenditure in the medium and long term: this is what the Nobel Laureate in Economics James Heckman calculated in 2009 on the basis of data from a famous experiment, The Perry Preschool Study. This longitudinal study, which was conducted on two groups of children starting in the 1960s, shows that, forty years later, those who received good quality pre-schooling have higher levels of education, more stable jobs and higher incomes, and less arrest records.

Esping-Andersen special guest

These findings corroborate the concept of social investment that has been developed since the 1990s by Gøsta Esping-Andersen. Currently a professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, he is one of the most quoted authors in the field of research on the welfare state and has taken part in numerous international organisations in order to bring this thinking into the political arena. But the views of the Danish sociologist also have their detractors. Facing some of these sceptics, he will be one of the keynote speakers at the “Assessing social investment strategy” conference organised by Prof. Giuliano Bonoli and four Swiss, French and Dutch colleagues on 10-11 April at the University of Lausanne (IDHEAP) with the support of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES. The other speakers in the plenary sessions will be Bea Cantillon (University of Antwerp), Anton Hemerijck (VU University Amsterdam) and Bruno Palier (Science Po Paris).

According to its advocates, social investment aims to promote social justice and responds to the need to reform the welfare state in the post-industrial context, as characterised by the rise in unemployment, changing family structures, female employment, migratory movements and the ageing of the population. In the research community, however, some argue that existing measures primarily benefit the middle class and reflect a utilitarian and accounting logic that aims to further increase tax revenues and reduce the costs of social protection rather than fostering genuine human development. One of the objectives of the conference is to allow researchers to compare these points of view based on empirical results, giving rise to around thirty presentations.

A new trend... except in Switzerland

Another interesting aspect of the event is that it will look beyond the strictly European framework to see what is happening on other continents, and finally bring the debate to Switzerland. Indeed, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Commission have recently adopted positions that are very favourable to social investment, less attention is given to what is happening in this field in the rest of the world, and Switzerland does not seem particularly concerned. "Certain measures along the lines of social investment have been taken in some cities and cantons, particularly in the areas of early childhood and professional reintegration, but few political parties have made it a central feature of their programmes", says Prof. Bonoli. At the Swiss Federal Social Insurance Office (OFAS), the head of the Research and Evaluation sector confirms that this subject is not on the agenda and no studies are currently being conducted into it.

The conference will conclude with a round table discussion, which will include contributions from figures from various political, administrative and academic spheres, at both the Swiss and European levels. Views on social investment ranging from enthusiastic to cautious and critical will be represented. OFAS Deputy Director Ludwig Gärtner will take part, which the organisers hope will provide a good opportunity for Switzerland to get involved in this debate.

"Women and children first"

One of the conference organisers, Prof. Bruno Palier, has been very active in advancing the cause of social investment in Europe, which, in 2013, resulted in the adoption by the European Commission of a Social Investment Package. This series of recommendations to the Member States for the modernisation of their social security systems underlines the importance of preparing populations for life’s uncertainties rather than simply dealing with the consequences. The researcher notes, however, that “for now, much more energy is put into monitoring budgetary restraint than into social investment projects".

He also cautions against the temptation to substitute social investment for social protection, which he considers to be complementary approaches. And responding to criticism, for example that the increase in the number of nursery places primarily favours affluent families, he reminds us that "to succeed, social investment must aim for universality, and, in the meantime, should target the poorest populations, giving priority to single mothers and migrants".