Expanding, Not Shrinking Social Programmes: The Politics of New Policies to Tackle Poverty and Inequality in Brazil, India, China and South Africa


While people in the West have been preoccupied with the economic crisis and the resulting contraction in social programmes, a crucial counter-trend has been largely overlooked by the media and by most researchers. This is the marked increase in recent years in government efforts to tackle poverty and inequality in four Rising Powers -- Brazil, India, China and South Africa. This project will analyse what has happened, why it was possible, and how governments accomplished it in each of the four countries -- which together contain nearly half of humankind, and increasingly set the international agenda. The project will then systematically compare the four cases to gain insight into this overall trend.

The research will be conducted by four interdisciplinary teams of country specialists who also have strong comparative skills. Each country team contains an analyst who has participated in the policy process -- to offer insights from 'inside', and to help convey the project's findings to other 'users' in the 'real world' -- in and beyond their countries. There are 17 researchers in all, 9 of whom come from the countries being studied. Their findings will be of use to scholars who study individual developing countries, plus those who specialise in comparative studies or global trends. They will also be helpful in connecting the project to other 'users' -- in governments, international agencies, and civil society organisations. Two United Nations agencies are partners in the project, and they will assist in placing findings before 'users' in all three categories. Many of the researchers have worked extensively with all three types of institutions -- in and beyond these four countries.

The project will pay special attention to senior politicians because they usually make most of the key policy decisions. Politicians have been unwisely omitted or marginalised in many technocratic studies of such themes. This project will also focus on politics because it is a potent influence on policy making. Technocratic studies often recommend programmes which will theoretically insulate policy from politics -- because they see politics as invariably destructive. But that is impossible to achieve -- politics is ubiquitous. And there is substantial evidence already in hand to show that politics can at times be a constructive force. In all four of these countries, leaders have intensified efforts to address poverty and inequality in large measure for political reasons. They believed that it would serve their interests by enhancing their popularity and legitimacy. There is plenty of evidence to show that they were correct. This project will explore that issue exhaustively. If it shows that social programmes which address poverty and inequality are indeed politically advantageous to those who introduce them, then the project will publicise that finding vigorously -- because if leaders in other developing countries recognise that, they will become more inclined to follow suit.


The project's UK-based investigators are:

Professor James Manor, (PI)  University of London Institute for Commonwealth Studies
Professor Jane Duckett, University of Glasgow
Professor Jude Howell, London School of Economics
Professor Anthony Pereira, Kings College London
Dr Louise Tillin, Kings College London

This project is funded under ESRC Rising Powers grant number ES/J012629/1.


A special section of The China Quarterly, Issue 237, March 2019: A “Golden Era” or a “Lost Decade”? Social Policy under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, comprising the following papers:

Howell, J. and J. Duckett. ‘Reassessing the Hu—Wen Era: A Golden Age or Lost Decade for Social Policy in China’, The China Quarterly 237, March2019, pp. 2—14. 

Duckett, J. ‘International Influences on Domestic Policy Making in China: Rural Cooperative Medical Schemes from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao’, The China Quarterly 237, March 2019, pp. 15—37.

Wang, G. ‘Principle-guided Policy Experimentation in China: From Rural Tax and Fee Reform to Hu and Wen's Abolition of Agricultural Tax’, The China Quarterly 237, March 2019, pp. 38—57. 

Howell, J. ‘NGOs and Civil Society: The Politics of Crafting a Civic Welfare Infrastructure in the Hu–Wen Period’, The China Quarterly 237, March 2019, pp. 58—81.

Gao, Q., S. Yang and F. Zhai. ‘Social Policy and Income Inequality during the Hu–Wen Era: A Progressive Legacy?’ The China Quarterly 237, March 2019, pp. 82—107. 

A special issue of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, Vol. 55, Issue 3, ‘The Politics of Tackling Poverty and Inequality in Brazil, China, India and South Africa, comprising the following papers on China:

Tillin, L. and J. Duckett, ‘The politics of social policy: welfare expansion in Brazil, China, India and South Africa in comparative perspective’, Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 55(3), 2017, pp. 253—277.

Duckett, J. and Wang, G. ‘Why do Authoritarian Regimes Provide Public Goods? Policy Communities, External Shocks and Ideas in China’s Rural Social Policy Making’, Europe-Asia Studies, 69(1), 2017, pp. 92—109.

Manor, J. and J. Duckett, ‘The Significance of Political Leaders for Social Policy Expansion in Brazil, China, India and South Africa’, Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 55(3), 2017, pp. 303—327.

Duckett, J. and G. Wang, ‘Poverty and Inequality’, presented at a conference, ‘China’s Challenges: The Road Ahead’, Center for Contemporary China Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 25—26 April 2013.

Duckett, J. ‘Poverty and Inequality: the Social Challenges facing China’s New Leaders’, Keynote/plenary lecture, Joint Conference of the International Forum on Contemporary China and the Joint East Asian Studies, University of Nottingham, 5--7 September, 2013.