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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Friday, May 22, 2009

Conditionality 2020

By Henry Kippin

James Purnell spoke at the 2020 PST yesterday, giving his take on the future of welfare in Britain.  I thought he spoke well and had some sound ideas, even if the gathered press seemed more interested in his denial of alleged tax avoidance…

 

His vision was of a ‘proactive welfare state’:  “An active welfare system alone simply requires people to work.  A proactive Welfare State seeks to create those jobs and opportunities.  It is based on supportive conditionality and it requires up front investment.” 

 

This effectively means more active labour market policies, and an emphasis on lowering the barriers to work.  To this end, the Secretary of State argued that “universal childcare is the foundation of the Scandinavian welfare systems which progressives in the UK rightly aspire to.  In these countries support is both more generous and more conditional, where investment in people is the route to higher employment and lower child poverty.“

 

But as my colleague pointed out after the speech, the trade-off for this (in Scandinavia at least) is public acceptance of a higher level of personal taxation.  Whether the UK is ready to go down this road is certainly up for debate…

 

One other phrase that stuck in my mind during the speech was ‘supportive conditionality’.  The Secretary of State argued that welfare conditionality was necessary, but should be cushioned by a raft of supply and demand-side measures – matching “responsibilities to real power and opportunities.”  This is a re-balancing act that gets to the very heart of the relationship between citizen and state in all kinds of areas, not only welfare.     

 

Conditionality has always been a loaded phrase for those working in international and development politics.  So I was intrigued to see an article in World Politics Review (published the same day) on the new, relaxed ‘International Monetary Fund 2.0’. 

 

The article suggests that the IMF is “repositioning itself as a lender for crisis prevention more than crisis resolution. The fund (has) created a new lending instrument known as the Flexible Credit Line…aimed at reassuring international investors by injecting essentially condition-free equity into qualifying countries with strong records of macroeconomic performance.

 

A cynic would suggest the Fund is simply taking advantage of a captive new western market (or indeed serving the very countries that capitalise it), but, apparently, “conditionality reforms for lower-income countries are planned for release this summer.

 

Lessons from both Purnell and Strauss-Khan?  One is that conditionality can only work when responsibility and agency are shared.  There will generally be a sharp power imbalance between those who need welfare support, and those institutions who are delivering it – but the whole point is that this support should start to redress this imbalance, affording citizens (or even states) the means to demand more and better from themselves, or even leave the system altogether.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 9:43 am
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