Julia Leininger, Anna Lührmann, Rachel Sigman | 2019

The Relevance of Social Policies for Democracy – Preventing Autocratisation through Synergies between SDG 10 and SDG 16

in: DIE Discussion Paper 7/2019.

Global threats to democracy – one of the world’s most important forms of inclusive governance – have been rising recently. This paper assesses thJe effects of social and economic inequalities on autocratisation, meaning a decline in the democratic qualities of a political regime. The key question we study is whether different types, levels and changes in distributional inequalities (Sustainable Development Goal 10) contribute to the erosion of democratic institutions, thereby making governance less inclusive (SDG 16). The paper focusses, in particular, on distributional inequalities and more or less inclusive forms of governance (autocracy vs. democracy). Our findings suggest that conventional measures of income inequality – namely the Gini coefficient – have little to no discernible relationship to the likelihood of a decline in the democratic qualities of a political system. By contrast, inequalities in the provision of social services, particularly healthcare and education, have a clear and consistent relationship to the likelihood of autocratisation. As countries provide social opportunities more equally across their population, they are significantly less likely to experience a weakening of their democratic qualities.

The paper provides an empirical analysis of data from a global sample of countries from 1945 to 2017. Unlike most studies of the effects of inequality on political outcomes, we consider not only income inequality but also inequalities in the distribution of social services such as healthcare, education and welfare. Unequal social opportunities are potentially important for understanding a decrease in democratic quality because they represent individuals’ experiences with the government beyond simply paying taxes, and they affect citizens’ prospects for future social and economic mobility. In addition, citizens with access to social goods and services such as healthcare and education are more empowered to hold the government accountable. In other words, (better) access to social goods and services (SDG 10) helps to achieve SDG 16. The findings provided in this discussion paper are meant to be a starting point for further studying how – and through which mechanisms – equality and inclusive institutions are linked to each other.

Three key recommendations emerge from these findings.

The findings of our empirical analyses are likely to receive the most interest from international actors who keep support for democracy high on their agendas, such as Sweden and Switzerland. However, the findings should matter to all those who are investing in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, because achieving SDG 16 is decisive for the overall agenda.

Invest in socially inclusive health and education policies to strengthen equality and democracy. Strategies for implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development should pay a lot more attention to achieving inclusive social policies. Equal access to education and healthcare is an end in itself (SDG 10), but it could also be a means to achieve more inclusive governance (SDG 16). This applies, in particular, in countries that already qualify as democracies and in poorer or middle-income-level countries. Thus, investing in inclusive health and education policies can strengthen synergies between SDGs. Given that democracies are better in equally distributing social services, it should be a goal in itself to deepen and protect democratic institutions and practices.

Interlink social policies and inclusive governance more systematically in policy design, planning and implementation. Development policies and programmes mostly focus on sectoral issues such as health, water or social protection. Governance is often tackled, if at all, as a cross-cutting or mainstreamed issue. Better governance shall be achieved through more participatory, transparent, etc., policy-making. However, theories of change and indicators focus on sectoral outcomes (e.g. quality in health services, better drinking water, etc.), and governance-related objectives are side-lined. However, well-functioning governance systems and their ability to distribute policies equally are crucial for achieving both SDG 16 and SDG 10. Theories of change and indicators that explicitly include distributional institutions should become the norm and not be the exception. Along these lines, the link between social protection systems, resource mobilisation (fiscal governance) and inclusive governance should be explored more extensively in research and practice.

Broaden and refine the measurement of SDG 10 to capture different types of inequalities. Measures of equality and inclusion have proliferated since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, including the agreements on indicators for how to measure the different types of (in)equality (United Nations Economic and Social Council [ECOSOC], 2016). In particular, there are a growing number of measures available to understand unevenness in the access to public goods and services such as healthcare and education. They have not yet entered the official measurement of SDG implementation on the country level and in the United Nations. Measures of equal distribution and exclusion by the V-Dem Institute (Coppedge et al., 2018) allow for time-series cross-national analysis, similar to the one presented in this paper. These measures complement existing measures based on economic and social data such as gross domestic product, Gini coefficient, infant mortality and school enrolment. In particular, they can help to identify gaps and changes in distributional equalities that are likely to affect broader achievement of the SDGs.

More about this publication here.

« back