The political economy of universal social policy

Universalism has become a central concept in global development and social policy – as expressed, for example, in the United Nations “Leaving No One Behind” promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the international consensus that states should provide comprehensive access to high quality social services and benefits for the entire population. Building on an emerging body of scholarship on the roles and opportunities of universal social policies in the Global South, this DPhil project examines the political economy of universalism from a global perspective.

As one of the first quantitative studies, the goal of the project is to explore the consequences and determinants of universalism by analysing cross-national variation in universal welfare provision. Using the comparative case studies of health care and old age pensions, the research explores the role of universalism for reducing inequality, strengthening social cohesion, and affecting the political support for redistribution. Furthermore, the project examines the enabling political conditions for the adoption and expansion of universal social policies, focusing on the role of democratic institutions, electoral competition, and party ideology. In bringing a global lens to the analysis, the project aims to expand the existing regional research focus by drawing on recent global data sources and by employing a flexible, outcome-focused conceptualisation of universalism along the dimensions of coverage, generosity, and equity.