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Social inclusion

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​​​​​​​​​​​Social inclusion has been defined by the World Bank as “The process of improving the terms for individuals and groups to take part in society” or more precisely “The process of improving the ability, opportunity, and dignity of people, disadvantaged on the basis of their identity, to take part in society”. The Dispatch on Switzerland's International Cooperation 2017–2020, put a special emphasis on social inclusion making explicit reference to the World Bank conceptual work (see Ref in the literature). As inclusion is about improving the terms of participation, (which can be detrimental for excluded people exploitation of working poor, women working long hours to reproductive tasks with no access to decisions), inclusion / exclusion are not in a binary opposition. Further, exclusion occurs because certain groups are systematically disadvantaged and/ or discriminated against on the basis of their identity: ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, caste, descent, gender, age, disability, HIV status, migrant status or where they live. Therefore, exclusion can occur linked to multiple dimensions of one person's identity. 

Social inclusion is multidimensional: it encompasses social, political, cultural and economic dimensions, and operates at various social levels. The most relevant aspects can be clustered under three interrelated domains: markets, services, and spaces (figure). The three domains represent both barriers to and opportunities for inclusion. It is also relational: it is the product of unequal power relations in social interactions. Finally, social inclusion is dynamic, it impacts people in various ways and to differing degrees over time and critically depends on and influence people’s ability, opportunity and dignity which are unequally distributed among social groups.

Being centered on process and relations, social inclusion complements the concept of inequality, which focuses more on disparities between different categories of people. Social exclusion brings a useful perspective because it offers an actor-oriented approach, in contrast to inequality focusing more on structures, which points to who is doing what, in relation to whom. It also helps identify and tackle issues of power.

Social inclusion / exclusion is also part of the important EU concepts, and in particular of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, which sets targets to lift at least 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusionbut. EU definitions – as for example at risk of poverty and social exclusion AROPE - are typically statistical (see poverty explainer).

There is no UN-wide agreed definition of social inclusion, but the 2016 report of the world social situation provides an interesting overview of the concepts of social inclusion, social integration and social cohesion and their links.


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