by Nicola Yeates
For those of us in ‘Brexit Britain’, it is sometimes easy to forget that the planned withdrawal of the UK from the EU is a countervailing global trend. Deeper regional cooperation and integration are favoured around the world as a fruitful response to a range of seemingly intractable social issues, promising substantial development dividends. Across South America, Africa, Asia and Europe the potential development dividends of strengthening regional social regulation, regional social standards, regional social rights and regional redistribution have gained significant ground.
This was not always the case: historically, regional cooperation and integration projects mostly meant little more than creating trade, finance and security hubs. Today, regional agendas are radically reshaping and speeding up social policy initiatives as diverse as enhancing access to affordable medicines, extending social protection, universalising healthcare, and promoting educational co-operation.
Expanding horizons through regional cooperation
The reasons for a stronger regional social policy are obvious enough. Regional networks give countries access to a much broader menu of policy options, including tools for advancing their own social standards much faster than can be achieved through wider multilateral negotiations involving hundreds of countries. For smaller and developing countries, regional formations offer them influence over vital global policy areas. Just as more developed countries can force social standards upwards in poorer neighbour states, so smaller countries can have a strong collective blocking effect on the otherwise unfettered ambitions of larger ones.
Regional strategies are also a powerful way to resist some of the excesses of neoliberal globalisation. Too often, global trade thrives on tax exemptions for local and global companies in ways that erode countries’ domestic fiscal capacity and resources, but if regional partners can establish common trade and tax rules, they can help strengthen each other against some of the harsher effects of global capital flows. These common rules help create the ‘policy space’ for countries to resist downward pressures on social standards, while also helping to generate resources to fund better social provision.
Sharing resources, building capacity
In an increasingly interconnected world, health threats arising from communicable diseases and antibiotic resistance, for example, do not remain confined to individual countries. Reflecting the transnational nature of health challenges, regional organisations have developed mandates on health and disease control.
Effective, timely and robust regional cooperation initiatives can often mean the difference between life and death. When there aren’t enough health workers and health systems are weak, population health suffers. People die.
The reasons for these shortages are many and complex, and by no means can all of them be solved through greater regional cooperation. But, if countries can roll their domestic initiatives together into regional strategies, pool their resources, share expertise and labour, they can start to address the terrible capacity issues that have left them vulnerable to major disease outbreaks and health crises.
In Southern Africa, for example, where the problem of access to healthcare is a key issue, the Global Fund-supported Cross Border Intervention for HIV and AIDS has established mobile clinics at border sites, where vulnerable populations, migrants and border communities can go to receive primary health care. The Cross Border Initiative for Malaria commits states to standardising and synchronising malaria control interventions, including indoor residual spraying (IRS), distribution of mosquito nets and early treatment of malaria cases with antimalarial medicines.
Regional engines for progressive social policies
Regional associations of nations are a hub of innovation in the development of social policies. For example, the Economic Community of West African States has established a regional court of justice adjudicating on national labour rights. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has been driving initiatives to expand entitlements to health care by supporting universalisation of provision at country-level, and to social security by promoting portability of entitlements. This builds on previous initiatives, in the form of the Ibero-American Multilateral Convention on Social Security (2007), that replace social security agreements among Latin American countries with a single agreement inclusive of those countries along with Spain and Portugal.
These are incredible achievements and testify to the potential of diplomacy on a regional scale. Above all, they show that building a strong regional social policy is by no means an alternative to national social policy. The two are entirely compatible and achievable, not just in rich ‘developed’ countries but in middle-income and lower-income ones too.
Regionalising global goals, domesticating implementation
Increasingly, the case is being made for regional integration as the answer to global development problems. International organisations are starting to wake up to the role that empowered regional groupings can play in international economic and social development. The EU, the Pan-American Health Organisation and even the World Bank have all started to get behind new kinds of regionalism in pursuit of greater health equity.
The aspirations of an international movement campaigning for the embedding of robust social policies in regional integration projects have most recently found concrete expression in the new Global Goals. Goal 17 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2016) identifies regional cooperation and integration as key to the implementation of the SDGs. Stronger regional leadership is needed to translate the Global Goals into better and more focused programmes of action, to ensure high social standards, and to support regional programmes of long-term social investment.
Successfully addressing the universal markers of under-development depends on all stakeholders, in the Global South as well as in the Global North, to take full ownership of the Goals and responsibility for achieving agreed targets. Responsibility for implementing the Global Goals lies with signatory countries, but they need not act alone. Working through regional fora enables them to speak with a coherent voice on the interconnectedness of social, economic and environmental issues and greater capacity to identify and pursue innovative policies. The enormous convening power of regional fora to galvanise diverse stakeholders in support of coherent, participatory policy-making, cross-sectoral cooperation and institutional innovation is, to date, largely unexploited. Among UN Regional Commissions, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific is at the forefront of such regional initiatives, having adopted a regional ‘roadmap’ towards achieving the SDGs.
Yet more can be done. For example, a strengthened regional approach to social protection would afford the possibility of it becoming a major plinth of global action on poverty, equality and sustainable development — not substituting for national strategies but rather empowering and enhancing them. The development of comprehensive regional social funds and regional social rights could support national Social Protection floor strategies. Regional secretariats, supported by the ILO and UN Regional Commissions, could facilitate the sharing of good practice and information among their members and beyond. Regional organisations could act as a platform to mobilise and engage with a wide range of partners in support of the SPF social protection goals as well as the wider social policy goals. If these opportunities are seized, they could make major strides in achieving Goal 1.3 to ensure access to essential public services (water, sanitation, health and education) and to a basic set of essential social transfers for income security; Goal 5.4, to ensure gender equality in access to public services and social protection policies; and, Goal 10.4 to ensure social equality through social protection, wage and fiscal policies.
The potential to better harness regional collective action for pro-poor, inclusive development, whether in ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ countries, must not be allowed to be marginalised by the present tenor of political debate. While it is unlikely that the benefits, achievements and possibilities of a strong(er) regional social policy will be allowed a full airing in the UK, it is nevertheless worth remembering that the rest of the world not only has growing experience of regional social policy but an increasingly healthy appetite for it.
This blog is a revised and updated version of Come together, right now: countries are working with neighbours like never before, The Conversation, October 2014.
Nicola Yeates is Professor of Social Policy at The Open University. She publishes widely on global and regional approaches to social policy.