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Defining social development

Social development is about putting people at the centre of development.This means a commitment that development processes need to benefit people, particularly but not only the poor, but also a recognition that people, and the way they interact in groups and society, and the norms that facilitates such interaction, shape development processes.

While the role of formal institutions and policies has become central to the development debate, the role of informal social institutions has received less attention. Debates on growth and poverty reduction have paid relatively little attention to the impact of, for example, norms of cooperation in villages and neighbourhoods, community oversight in the management of projects, or non-discrimination against women and minorities in education and health. Of course, micro-studies invariably highlight their importance, but can we measure such informal social institutions?

What exactly are these social institutions? We understand these as the behaviours, norms and conventions that pattern human interaction. Participation in local organisations, demonstrations, petitions, and elections are examples of such behaviours. Norms and conventions, often unwritten, govern human interaction, and are the lived relations between people. Norms of non-discrimination against groups based on ethnicity, language, or gender are examples of social institutions, as are norms of criminal behaviour and about civic activism.

Social development thus implies the change in social institutions. Progress toward an inclusive society, for example, implies that individuals treat each other (more) fairly in their daily lives, whether in the family, workplace, or in public office. Social cohesion is enhanced when peaceful and safe environment within neighbourhoods and communities are created. Social accountability exists to the extent that citizens’ voices are expressed, and heard by the authorities. Formal institutional reform – for example, the provision of legally enshrined rights, better law enforcement, or more participatory governance – are  part of the process by which institutional change is achieved, changing the way people relate to people is an equally important part of this.

The Indices of Social Development focus on measuring the informal social institutions, how they compare across countries, and how these changes over time. It does this by using existing databases, around the world, and combining these to find the best possible match with our definition of social development. Through an on-going process of expert discussion, and review of existing databases, we have organised the Indices of Social Development into five groupings:

Civic activism refers to the social norms, organisations, and practices which facilitate greater citizen involvement in public policies and decisions. These include use of media, access to civic associations, and involvement in activities such as nonviolent demonstration or petition.

Clubs and associations uses data on levels of engagement in local community groups, time spent socialising in voluntary associations, and membership of developmental organisations, to identify the extent to which people are part of social networks and potentially supported by community ties.

Inter-group cohesion refers to relations of cooperation and respect between groups in a society; where this cooperation breaks down, there is the potential for conflict and acts of terror and riots.

Interpersonal safety and trust measures the level of trust and confidence between individuals that do not know each other personally, specifically with regard to the likelihood of criminal violence and other forms of trust violation, and combines this with measures of rates of violence.

Gender equality estimates the extent of discrimination against women, whether in the labour market, education, healthcare, or in the home.


World Summit for Social development Copenhagen 1995, http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/wssd/index.html

Davis, Gloria. A History of the Social Development Network in the World Bank. Washington D.C.: The World Bank, Social Development, Paper No.56, March 2004.