Mr Palm's speech during the roundtable "Policy and research on Social Inclusion in Albania" organized by the European University of Tirana on 4 February 2013
I will start with a comment, that probably all of you are already aware. Social Inclusion is to make sure that groups of people are not excluded from social and economic activities that most of us enjoy. Especially in situations of austerity, when governments are looking for money to pay their debts, one of the first areas where governments try to save money is social protection or social programmes. Because they are often considered a burden to the budget, and not a productive investment.
But social inclusion is not a luxury. There is abundant scientific and convincing evidence that more equal societies are better for everybody – not only for those that may get “lifted up” by social protection programmes, but even for the rich who always complain that they are paying too much taxes. More inclusive societies are more productive, more stable, they enjoy more lasting economic growth that is less affected by global crises. They have lower crime rates, and people are generally more satisfied with life and live longer. Everybody wins.
To ensure an inclusive society that provides equal opportunity is not just a morally right thing to do – as the scholars and practitioners of human rights keep reminding us, but it is also economically the best choice.
So if there was any one who doubted the need for more social inclusion, I hope that at least for the moment we can agree on its importance. With that I have five messages:
First. We “know” who are excluded. If we were to sit around the table, within half an hour, I think we can reach agreement among all of us on who – in principle – is at risk of being excluded. This is a fairly easy task. But we don’t have the statistics. We don’t know exactly how many people there are, how exactly a category of excluded people is defined and so on.
We may tell the statistical office but I don’t think they can provide the answer. Because we have to be very specific of how exactly exclusion is defined. Current data provided by Albanian institutions are not comparable to those provided elsewhere in the region. We need meaningful data, data that lends itself to creating solutions. For instance, just being disabled, or just being poor, or just being a member of the Roma community doesn’t mean to be automatically excluded. For instance, I may have a difficulty with hearing. It does not automatically make me an excluded person – but it is the society - the people around me - that may exclude me because they don’t remember speaking louder when they are talking to me. We need to be more scientific and academic about social exclusion, rather than just categorizing people according to ethnicity or disability status and so on.
Second. It is very easy to put people in boxes, or to declare someone is excluded because of a certain attribute. But we need to remember that it is the rest of us – the “mainstream” population that excludes others. So much more research is needed to ask questions such as: What are the barriers to participation; what are the barriers that other people have built around themselves to exclude others; and what are they doing to remove those barriers.
Take a person in a wheelchair. A single step in front of the supermarket or the municipal office, and they are excluded from shopping or applying for some municipal service. It is often the thoughtlessness of us that causes exclusion. So I want much more research on the barriers that society has built up. And on the services or benefits that many people are excluded from. We can’t ask an illiterate person to fill a form, we can’t ask a poor person to come to Tirana to get his medicaments. And so on. The social protection system must be on top of it – social workers must be sensitive to the special needs of vulnerable people, even if the regular population is not.
Third. Social exclusion starts at birth. Child poverty and exclusion is much more harmful for children than for adults. Why? Because children develop, and they develop most dramatically during their first years in life. That is when the brain grows, and the cognitive, motoric, social and many other skills are developed. If, in case of a crisis, this development is interrupted, it doesn’t mean that the child will merely develop a little later. It means that the child will never be able to catch up. The trajectory of the development of the child is changed for ever. And child exclusion is not just a question of providing social assistance or cash to the family, or some clothing, because many more factors influence the wellbeing and growth of a child. That is why we advocate for children to be the unit of analysis of poverty and exclusion. Adults may still cope for a year or so though a crisis, but child development is particularly sensitive to exclusion.
Fourth. Let’s consider the typical social assistance provided to families. We all know that amounts provided presently are not enough – they barely keep the families alive. But more importantly, if children grow up in those constrained environments, they are much more likely to become recipients of social assistance when they grow up. Or did you ever hear that the child of a Minister or a successful businessman or a professor ended up asking for social assistance? Of course not. So poverty breeds poverty. If we want to break this vicious cycle, then we have to ensure that social assistance and social protection in all its forms is squarely directed at children. So they can eat, be healthy and learn something in school, even if the parents are still struggling. Only well protected children will be able to stop the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. A lot of reforms are required to adapt Albania’s social protection system to ensure children from poor families can develop their full potential – and of course UNICEF with the Swiss Government is assisting the government in this. Social Protection must work for the most vulnerable members of society – and that must also include the provision of social care services and case management. But it remains a subject for on-going research.
Last point: There simply is not enough awareness on the extent of social exclusion and the need for more inclusive policies. All governments – at the macro-level – are concerned with growth - that is economic growth. As if it is the cure to all problems. There is plenty of evidence that, without corrective policies, the rich get rich faster than the poor get out of poverty. Economic policies need to be “pro-poor”, ensuring that the poor and excluded get at least their fair share – or better an even greater share of this growth, so we can move towards an inclusive society. Here we need academic institutions to enter the debate and lead a public discourse – because it hasn’t even started in Albania yet.
Implementation of inclusive policies requires many stakeholders. We want everyone, including the vulnerable and excluded members of our society to become active citizens of a democratic country. Young people can be a powerful voice. Young people – and I particularly count on students of academic institutions - can exert pressure that leads to institutional change, to ensure a fully inclusive society.