The politics of care, welfare and social cohesion

Intersectional perspectives on redistributive and liberal welfare regimes in a global context. A South African – Swiss Joint Research Seminar at the University of Basel, 3 to 5 May 2010.

Keywords: Care, Welfare, Social cohesion, Gender, Intersectionality, Global justice

The indispensability of care to human wellbeing is undisputed. Care permeates and shapes the lives of individuals and societies. In critical circumstances such as injury and illness, medical care is crucial to our recovery. Care is also central to everyday life throughout the regular life course of all persons. As vulnerable infants we require constant tending by caregivers for our immediate survival. As young people we need the care provided by institutions such as schools for our personal development and our introduction into society. As adults we rely on the support of family and friends, not for profit organisations and the state to flourish. And as we grow old and infirm we increasingly rely on the care others provide to alleviate discomfort and see to our daily needs. Where care is unevenly received, marginalisation follows, thus jeopardising social cohesion.

While all people depend on care for their mental and physical wellbeing, most people are also involved at some stage in their lives and to some degree in care provision. This includes direct care for others as well as mediated care through their involvement in institutions or their economic contributions via taxes. The intricate interrelations between care, social policy and the economy are extremely sensitive. Where this interrelationship is skewed and where the balance between the provision of care and the entitlement to care are out of kilter – e.g. because those who have to sell care cannot access it equally – justice and solidarity are undermined and social cohesion is at risk.

Although there is universal agreement on the indispensability of care, the mounting crisis of care has sharpened disagreements on what constitutes good care and how this should be provided. Of particular concern are the limitations on resources and how these resources (e.g. time, training, treatments) should be distributed. Different views prevail on the ideal mix of care provision in the domestic sphere, the state, the private economy and voluntary work. These conflicting responses to struggles for recognition and redistribution are differently concretised in liberal-residual welfare regimes, such as Switzerland, and redistributive welfare regimes, such as South Africa, respectively. Furthermore, in an age of accelerating globalisation, the provision of care and welfare increasingly exceed the traditional boundaries of nation states and constitute a challenge to justice on a global scale.

Gender is central to the interrelations between care, welfare and cohesion, both within national welfare regimes and globally. This is evident in, for example, its interconnections with health, care work, and agency: The relevance of gender to health is recorded in studies which suggest that men are more likely than women to risk their health, and resist seeking medical and social care, while women take responsibility for the health care of their families and themselves. This has implications for the wellbeing of the men as well as the women and children involved with them. Accordingly, in South Africa women and girls face daily hardships on a physical, social, emotional and economic level. The unequal power relations between men and women is a key factor in the deepening impact of ill health, and are felt at various levels: the personal/intimate relationship, the household, the community, institutional and public levels. Women and girls are for example disproportionately affected, and now make up half of the people living with HIV and AIDS globally and 58% of the total in sub-Saharan Africa. The African Medical and Research Foundation reports that there will be 18 million children orphaned by Aids in Africa in 2010. The relevance of gender is also evident in the persistent problem of the distribution of paid and unpaid intergenerational care of children and the elderly. The growing participation of women – to whom traditional roles had delegated the brunt of responsibility – in the paid economy has transformed care for the young and old. This is often tied to a decline in social cohesion as some people buy care services provided by a service class of mainly women from economically weaker groups, leaving the dependents of those marginalised groups exposed to greater risks and disadvantaged care. Finally, interconnections between gender, welfare and agency are widely recognised. Whilst some forms of entitlement to welfare and care are reported to create dependencies of women and girls on men, thus retarding gender justice, other forms of entitlement have been found to promote gender justice by supporting female agency.

Cutting across the different welfare regimes, there is a common concern about a mounting crisis of care. In redistributive care and welfare regimes, such as South Africa, attempts have been made to broaden the reach of the welfare state by means of a basic income grant. Yet, high poverty rates and low employment levels, structural adjustment, the care drain and HIV pandemic combine to place tremendous strain on private and state resources. Hence, reports on child welfare for example show alarming degrees of neglect. In liberal welfare regimes, such as Switzerland, the aging population and rising medical costs have resulted in escalating confrontations between the state, medical insurers and the generations about the financing of care in old age. Increasingly, these local tensions are further complicated by an uneven provision of care and welfare amongst various societies on the globe.

The seminar will examine these common concerns and the different attempts at addressing them. In particular, it will explore the viability of alternative solutions to pressing problems that can emerge from learning from each other. For this it will draw on the different theoretical and empirical analyses and concrete experiences accumulated within the South African and Swiss care and welfare regimes and pertaining to social cohesion. Since care provision has implications throughout society, a transdisciplinary approach will be taken. Specialists from different disciplines (e.g. Anthropology, Development Studies, Economics, Education, Gender Studies, Psychology, Political Studies, Social Work and Sociology) will each contribute their specific expertise to form a more comprehensive understanding of the ways in which different dimensions interact with each other. In addition, the seminar will promote an intersectionalist approach, taking gender as its central category. Hence it will examine the various ways in which the intersections amongst gender and a range of other analytic categories (e.g. age, citizenship status, identities, class, sexualities, race, ethnicity, health, geographic location, and religion) relate to care, welfare and social cohesion. Finally, these national complexities will be related to the larger question of care, welfare and social cohesion on a global scale.

Ultimately participants in the seminar will seek answers to the questions: How do gender and other differences impact on social cohesion, on the provision of, and the entitlement to care and welfare? And how do the provision of care and welfare and specific forms of social cohesion impact on gender and other forms of difference? What welfare mix ensures the best care that is most equitably distributed, given the constraints facing Swiss and South African societies? And how can these local responses best adapt to mounting conflicts over global justice? These questions will be addressed with the ultimate aim to advance gender justice for women and men, boys and girls in both South Africa and Switzerland.

Project partners:

Prof Dr Thenjiwe Magwaza: Head, Gender Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal (leading partner in South Africa)
Prof Dr Vasu Reddy: Chief research specialist, Gender and Development, Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa
Prof Dr Tamara Shefer: Director, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of the Western Cape