Bangladesh, in line with other countries at an equivalent stage of economic development, lags behind rich countries with regards to social policy, defined as the human dimensions of governance. A recent example is the utter disregard shown to the livelihoods of thousands of poor rickshaw-pullers pulled from important thoroughfares of Dhaka all of a sudden. Newspapers report that three or more lives depend on the earnings of each rickshaw-puller. Was this step ethically right in the backdrop of persistent un- and under-employment? How do policy- makers balance the principles of justice, equity and fair-play, on the one hand, with the need for efficient traffic systems, on the other?
Human aspects of policy-making deserve importance in a modern state. Because economics teaches us that every choice has an opportunity cost, we are compelled to choose the least harmful and optimum alternative within budget constraints. In a democracy it behoves the government to be sensitive to the daily lives of the marginalised. One way to engage them is to speak, and give importance, to affected stakeholders.
Social policy has evolved from the twin concepts of social work and welfare society. This percolated in public discourse in advanced western countries in the wake of the Great Depression.
In the West, social policy is a central tenet of government policy - both at local and federal levels. Policy choices, their coverage, costs and efficacy, inevitably give rise to debates in a free environment. Reason: resources are limited having multiple usages, therefore failing to satisfy every want, however genuine or pressing. Newspapers are quick to fan stories that highlight human experiences.
Scholars define the field more in terms of a subject area rather than a discipline. Social policy has borrowed heavily from economics, law, politics, psychology and sociology and is richer for it.
England has traditionally been the crucible of new ideas and social experiments. English thinkers are credited as pioneers of social policy. Successive governments in the United Kingdom have implemented social welfare programmes on an incremental basis or else improved them. These dealt with such issues as child poverty, homelessness, unemployment, ill health, and ageing.
Scandinavian and Benelux countries were not far behind. A happy coincidence was Western Europe's rising levels of government revenue built on the back of the region's affluence. Because of its catholic origin and the employability of graduates, this discipline is popular among university students. Not surprisingly, social policy continues to generate controversies as partisans wear different ideological hats along with the ebb and flow of dominant schools of thought.
The kernel of social policy is social welfare - the delivery of social services to the needy. Complication arises from the multiplicity of needs. On top, the relative urgency of those needs under each category varies. Take child health as an example. Under this category the government may, for instance, give priority to the prevention of measles.
Social policy also embraces the academic study of government policies and programmes for making life bearable, productive, useful and more enjoyable especially for the less fortunate. The provision of ramps and retro-fitted toilets in public buildings for disabled people, are examples.
Furthermore, social policy takes the form of financial aid such as child assistance or unemployment benefit.
Welfare programmes, being targeted expenditures, are meant for narrow sections of the population who become eligible due to a misfortune. Outlays on account of social welfare programmes are different from public goods and cause friction and even opposition. The curtailment of social programmes in the west in recent years has been blamed on austerity measures implemented in southern Europe after the great financial/Greek debt crisis.
Life produces winners and losers. A caring society should not neglect the latter.
Raihan Amin is a Visiting Faculty at the University of
Asia Pacific (UAP)
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