United Nations Research Institute For Social Development
UNRISD is located at the
United Nations Office at Geneva
The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) is "an autonomous research institute within the United Nations that undertakes multidisciplinary research and policy analysis on the social dimensions of contemporary development issues”. UNRISD was established in 1963 with the mandate of conducting policy-relevant research on social development that is pertinent to the work of the United Nations Secretariat, regional commissions and specialized agencies, and national institutions.
A small team of researchers coordinates UNRISD’s research programmes, which focus primarily on the developing world, working in collaboration with national research teams from local universities and research institutes. The Institute’s work takes a holistic, multidisciplinary and political economy approach. UNRISD’s location at the United Nations Office at Geneva gives researchers access to channels of policy influence through active participation in events, meetings, conferences and working groups.
- 1 History
- 2 UNRISD themes and projects
- 3 Publications
- 4 UNRISD events
- 5 Outreach and communication
- 6 Policy influence and impacts
- 7 UNRISD Staffing Structure
- 8 Governance
- 9 Funding
- 10 External links
- 11 References
UNRISD was established in 1963 “to conduct research into problems and policies of social development, and relationships between various types of social development and economic development”. It was originally set up with a grant from the Government of the Netherlands, and its first Board Chair was the eminent economist Jan Tinbergen, who received the first-ever Nobel prize for economics in 1969.
UNRISD’s initial research focused on the design of indicators to measure development not just in terms of economic growth but also social factors, such as nutrition, health and education. As such, it employed many statisticians in its early years. Another early project focused on cooperatives as a tool for development, which produced some controversial results.
In the 1970s, global population growth made food production, supply and eventually food systems into a key topic in development. UNRISD’s work on the so-called Green Revolution (the introduction of newly bred high-yield grain seeds to increase food production) took a typically critical view. It highlighted the fact that the quantity of food available was only one factor in ensuring populations in developing countries were not subject to hunger. Power inequalities impacting on the distribution of foodstuffs played a key role in determining who got enough to eat and who didn’t.
By the 1980s, UNRISD was growing in size, in terms of both funding and staffing. Its remit diversified to cover popular participation and refugee issues, gradually leaving some of its early preoccupation with statistics behind.
In the 1990s UNRISD thrived. A wide range of topics were addressed, ranging from political violence to the socioeconomic impact of illicit drugs. Globalization in the modern era and structural adjustment programmes in developing countries brought about social crises which UNRISD researched and criticized, arguing that unregulated markets required a healthy public sector and stable governance to function properly.
Environmental issues took firm root in development debates during this decade. UNRISD’s take was typically critical: whatever the benefits of conservation, it was often happening at the expense of social justice and the livelihoods of minorities.
In the 2000s, as globalization continued apace and social dimensions began to be re-introduced in the face of the sometimes catastrophic impacts of wide-ranging economic liberalization, UNRISD criticized a narrow social policy focus on safety nets and the targeting of vulnerable groups, arguing instead in favour of transformative social policy.
UNRISD themes and projects
The current research agenda  incorporates four main themes:
- Social policies for inclusive development
- Politics and institutional dynamics of social development
- Socially sustainable development
- Gender dimensions of development
These themes include the following projects, some recently completed, others still underway:
- Politics of Domestic Resource Mobilization for Social Development (2011–2015)
- Understanding Gender-Egalitarian Policy Change: When and Why Do States Respond to Women’s Claims-Making? (2010–2014)
- Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy (2012–2013)
- Mobilizing Revenues from Extractive Industries: Protecting and Promoting Children’s Rights and Well-Being in Resource-Rich Countries (2013)
- Post-2015 Development Agenda (2012–2015)
- South-South Migration and Development: What Role for Social Policy and Regional Governance (2012–2014)
- Labour Markets and Social Policy: Gendered Connections (2011–2013)
- Health Systems as Social Institutions: Progress towards Health in All Policies (2012–2013)
- Towards Universal Social Security in Emerging Economies: Process, Institutions and Actors (2012–2013)
- Employment-Centred Poverty Reduction and Social Policy in Rural Tanzania: Policy and Institutional Change (2011–2012)
- Making International Development Cooperation Effective (2011–2012)
- Social Dimensions of Green Economy and Sustainable Development (2011–2012)
- Migration and Health in China (2011–2012)
- Women’s Organizations in the Asia Region and the Post-2015 Process (2011–2012)
UNRISD makes its research widely available through books (in partnership with publishers like Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan and Wiley Blackwell), research papers and occasional papers (which are peer-reviewed) and working papers (which are not peer-reviewed). UNRISD researchers also regularly contribute articles to scholarly journals. These publications are typically of interest to an academic audience.
Other publications target an audience of policy-makers, programme designers and decision-makers. These take the form of briefs, whether research and policy briefs, or briefs concerning a specific project, issue or event.
Some of these publications have received international recognition, success and incorporation into major global debates. UNRISD regularly publishes flagship reports which synthesize a significant body of recent research.
From 1996 to 2005, UNRISD produced a total of 69 books (external publishers, co-published and in-house) and 286 papers (chapters in books, journal articles and in-house). The print-run for this period was an accumulative of 345,000 for in-house publications including monographs, papers, reports, newsletters and briefs.
Key publications: Flagship reports
UNRISD. 2010. Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics. UNRISD, Geneva.
The publication, with a foreword by Ban Ki-Moon, argues that many current approaches to reducing poverty and inequality fail to consider key institutional, policy and political dimensions that may be both causes of poverty and inequality, and obstacles to their reduction. Moreover, when a substantial proportion of a country’s population is poor, it makes little sense to detach poverty from the dynamics of development. For countries that have developed successfully, the report shows, progress has occurred principally through state-directed strategies that combine economic development objectives with active social policies and forms of politics that elevate the interests of the poor in public policy.
UNRISD. 2005. Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World. UNRISD. Geneva.
A contribution to the Fourth World Conference on Women, the primary focus of the report is on the economic and political reforms of the 1990s. The reforms reflect mixed results for gender equality and the advancement of women. As a result, the report calls for significant changes to current development practices (especially economic expansion, social programs, democratic processes and structural transformation). Overall, the UNRISD report on gender inequality is a road map documenting how far countries have come in addressing gender inequality, what policies and procedures are currently in place and where we still need to go to make gender equality a reality.
UNRISD. 2000. Visible Hands: Taking Responsibility for Social Development. UNRISD, Geneva
The publication discusses issues of social justice and cohesion in an increasingly individualistic world. It argues that too much confidence in the invisible hand of unregulated markets has been matched by too little understanding of the necessary relation between public policy and development. Efficient markets require the contributions of a well-run public sector to create, for example, a healthy, well-educated and well-informed population as well as the social stability that grows out of democratic governance and an acceptable level of public provision.
UNRISD. 1995. States of Disarray: The Social Effects of Globalization. UNRISD, Geneva.
Compiled for the World Summit for Social Development, this flagship report provides a comprehensive analysis of some of the world’s major social challenges of the time. Part I discusses the momentous changes associated with globalization that radically altered the scale and nature of social problems. Part II explores the linkages between globalization and key social issues such as migration, crime, drugs, ethnic conflict and the reconstruction of war-torn societies. Part III examines the impact of globalization on institutions at local, national and international levels, and suggests a path of institutional reform to guide the process of globalization in a more cohesive direction.
UNRISD frequently convenes conferences and seminars, as a means of refining and developing its research and to disseminate its findings. Its events are often closely linked with its policy impact, being the forums where development policy makers and practitioners can come into contact with academics working on social development.
Recent major UNRISD conferences
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, UNRISD co-hosted a conference with the ILO (International Labour Organisation) in 2013 entitled “The Potential and Limits of the Social and Solidarity Economy”. The conference featured prominent speakers such as Guy Ryder, Jose Luis Coraggio, Paul Singer and Sarah Cook. Over 40 academics presented research findings to about 400 participants. There were several side events including a PhD poster session, book presentations, a practitioners’ forum, movie screenings and a special session on alternative finance and complementary currencies hosted by the UN-NGLS.
In 2011, UNRISD organized a conference held in Geneva on climate change as a social development issue called “Green Economy and Sustainable Development: Bringing Back the Social Dimension”. The conference created a forum for developing a conceptual and policy framework to position social dimensions at the centre of green economy and sustainable development. Policy reports and other publications prepared for this conference informed the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) preparatory process and subsequent policy discussions.
In response to the global financial crisis, UNRISD held an international conference in 2009 called "Social and Political Dimensions of the Global Crisis: Implications for Developing Countries". Speakers focused on examples from low- and middle-income countries such as Chile, China, South Africa, and Thailand and the strategies of their citizens and governments to cope with the financial crisis. The conference aimed to generate new ways of thinking about what it means to live in uncertain times. From this, new agendas for research, policy and practical action can emerge, leading ultimately to policies and institutional arrangements which provide greater resilience for individuals, communities and nations.
In addition to its international conferences, UNRISD organises a regular Seminar Series  to provide a space for open, informed and insightful conversation around contemporary issues of concern to social development research and policy. Recent seminars have included:
- Piloting Basic Income in India: A Transformative Policy? - Prof. Guy Standing (economist)
- The Legend of China's Growth - Professor Li Yang, Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
- The Human Rights Approach to Social Protection - Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights
- Uncovering the Politics of "Evidence" - Rosalind Eyben, Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK
Outreach and communication
In recent years, UNRISD’s outreach and communication strategy has focused on three core objectives:
- Generating knowledge through research
- Strengthening the capacity to communicate findings
- Mobilizing resources to sustain research
Communication of the research findings has proven to be a key component in strengthening the ultimate purpose and impact of UNRISD activities as well as increasing recognition and use of UNRISD research in the UN system, donor communities, academia and civil society.
UNRISD is currently engaged on Linkedin, Scribd, Facebook and Twitter; on the last of these it has recently reached 20,000 followers. UNRISD also produces multimedia material as a means of making seminars and conferences available through online videos and podcasts.
Policy influence and impacts
UNRISD’s position within the UN system allows it a significant degree of policy influence, while its governance structure and funding situation (see below) give it more latitude for independence than other UN entities enjoy. Its staff serve on UN system-wide committees, task forces and expert groups, and undertake collaborative research with other UN agencies.
UNRISD's independent international events, conferences, seminars and symposiums (see above) are held in order to discuss and present research findings and debates in select fields of focus. These events often draw in the participation of local and international NGOs, government representatives, the media, universities and other research institutes, as well as individual researchers and academics. UNRISD events have also been co-hosted and co-organized with co-operating universities, NGOs and local governments. This extensive cooperation with social development stakeholders is one of the Institute's key channels of policy influence and impact.
UNRISD Staffing Structure
UNRISD has a small core staff, located in Geneva, Switzerland, which coordinates an international network of collaborating researchers. Collaboration with UNRISD may take one of several forms. Original research may be directly commissioned for a centrally coordinated research project. Alternatively, researchers can respond to a Call for Papers and submit research already underway for publication as part of an UNRISD project. UNRISD also publishes think pieces on its website by collaborating scholars.
UNRISD’s network of currently active collaborating researchers numbers over 400, with a large proportion from the global South.
UNRISD is overseen by a Board, headed by a Chairperson who is appointed by the UN Secretary-General. The ten Board members are selected based on their expertise and qualifications, and membership is confirmed by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Board members participate in their individual capacity and do not represent UN member states. The Board reports to the Commission for Social Development biennially.
Chairs of the Board
- Jan Tinbergen, Netherlands (1963–1974)
- H.M.A. Onitiri, Nigeria (1975)
- M.T. Diawara, Côte d'Ivoire (1976–1982)
- K.A. Naqvi, India (1977)
- Gustavo Esteva, Mexico (1983)
- Paul-Marc Henry, France (1984–1988)
- Keith Griffin, United Kingdom (1989–1994)
- Juan Somavia, Chile (1995–1997)
- Emma Rothschild, United Kingdom (1998–2005)
- Lourdes Arizpe, Mexico (2006–2011)
- Maureen O’Neil, Canada (2012–present)
The Director reports to both the Board and to ECOSOC via the Commission for Social Development. The Director is responsible for UNRISD’s research activities, fundraising and external relations with the UN secretariat, senior UN officials, specialized agencies, donors and other research entities. Directors are also actively engaged in research.
- Jan F. de Jongh (1964–1967)
- Donald V. McGranahan (1967–1977)
- Solon L. Barraclough (1977–1984)
- Enrique J. Oteiza (1984–1987)
- Dharam Ghai (1987–1997)
- Thandika Mkandawire (1998–2009)
- Sarah Cook (2009–present)
UNRISD relies wholly on voluntary funding from governments, development agencies and foundations, receiving no funding from the United Nations budget. This potentially unstable arrangement guarantees the Institute’s independent status and gives it a certain critical latitude.
The following governments have contributed to UNRISD over the past 50 years: Australia, Austria, Canada, Cuba, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Yugoslavia.
- UNRISD website, accessed 2 December 2013: http://www.unrisd.org/80256B3C005BF3C2/(httpPages)/1889BA294D2950E08025791F005CD710?OpenDocument
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 3 December 2013: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/616484/United-Nations-Research-Institute-for-Social-Development-UNRISD
- UN-NGLS Handbook, accessed 2 December 2013: http://www.un-ngls.org/orf/documents/publications.en/ngls.handbook/a24unrisd.htm
- United Nations Secretary-General's Bulletin ST/SGB/126, August 1963, accessed 3 December 2013: http://www.unrisd.org/80256B42004CCC77/%28httpInfoFiles%29/688FB4B8BD9166D6C1257AB000336316/$file/UNRISD%20statutes.pdf
- Social Development in an Uncertain World. UNRISD Research Agenda 2010–2014, accessed 3 December 2013: http://www.unrisd.org/80256B42004CCC77/(httpInfoFiles)/43BFA3387807E7E680257920004253C7/$file/ResAge10-14a.pdf
- SIDA Evaluation 06/46 "Too good to be true? UNRISD 1996–2005", accessed 3 December 2013: http://sidapublications.citat.se/interface/stream/mabstream.asp?filetype=1&orderlistmainid=2021&printfileid=2021&filex=2926998214861
- UN World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen 1995, accessed 3 December 2013: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/wssd/text-version/ See also Commission for Social Development
- For more details see http://www.unrisd.org/seminars
- See the UNRISD YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/UNRISD
- See the UNRISD playlist on itunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/unrisd-podcasts/id327781843?ign-mpt=uo%3D4
- For more information on the Institute's network of researchers, see http://www.unrisd.org/80256B3C005BF3C2/%28httpPages%29/A1E01CEB9CEA7CDF802579C7005A0EEA?OpenDocument&Count=1000