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There is now wide recognition that poverty is much more than a simple lack of income and productive resources. And addressing poverty requires much more than good economic policy and positive economic growth. In this context, social development can be defined as a transformative process which aims to reduce poverty and vulnerability by:  increasing inclusion and equity in access to resources, services and opportunities;  building the asset base of different individuals and groups (including non-material assets);  empowering people in their relationships with political, economic and social institutions (both formal and informal).

Social development is therefore a cross-cutting approach which applies across all development “sectors”, from infrastructure, natural resources and agriculture, to education, health and governance. Specifically, the use of social development approaches ensures that policy design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation processes are built upon and include an understanding of:

  • poverty and vulnerability as multi-dimensional and dynamic;
  • the local context, including the formal (organisational) and informal (social norms,   relationships and customs) institutions that affect levels of choice, access and control over resources – all of which can either facilitate or hinder movements out of poverty;
  •  how different groups benefit from or are disadvantaged by development projects, programmes and policies; and
  •  how power dynamics, interactions and relationships – which can be reinforced through political systems, institutions (formal and informal) and dialogue – affect social inclusion/exclusion and social change.

OPM’s expertise lies in helping donors and governments gain this understanding. We apply techniques such as political economy analysis, poverty and social impact analysis (PSIA), social and gender analysis and vulnerability analysis, as well as survey and participatory monitoring work, to gather the views of citizens and integrate these into the policy cycle.  In doing so, we emphasise the process of research and analysis as an empowering tool for citizens and communities, while using the final findings to provide practical and socially feasible recommendations.

Particular groups of people and individuals remain excluded from the resources, services and opportunities which could help them move out of poverty. Even within contexts of strong overall developmental progress, inequity in development outcomes remains. The basis of this exclusion and inequity can include a complex range of political, social and economic factors, but at its core it is about power dynamics within households, communities and society. Understanding and addressing these dynamics and the institutionalised barriers that result from them is crucial to reducing poverty and vulnerability.

Equity and inclusion are directly linked and inter-related. Effectively addressing inequity requires an understanding of not only which people and groups are excluded but also how and why they are excluded. This means analysing the power dynamics that create and reinforce exclusion and discrimination in particular contexts. Policies and strategies to increase inclusion and equity need to be rooted in an understanding of the local context, including the formal (organisational) and informal (social norms, relationships and customs) institutions that affect choice of, access to and control over resources, services and opportunities.
Understanding the differences between groups and people, and the different forms of resources, services and opportunities needed to ensure they benefit equitably or fairly from development, is needed at various levels: e.g. household, community, regionally and nationally. At the household and local levels, this means understanding disparities within families and communities. Within households, for instance, gender is often a key factor which results in exclusion and inequity. At other levels, differences based on factors such as religion, ethnicity, location or race may mean particular population groups (or geographic regions) are more excluded than others and benefit less from development interventions. Policy solutions to address exclusion therefore need to take into account and be adapted to these diverse contexts: the formal and informal institutions that exclude women from specific castes in particular parts of India are different from those which exclude disabled people in Egypt, for instance.
OPM has extensive experience in analysing and understanding the factors which create and maintain exclusion and inequity in different contexts and at all levels, and turning this analysis into practical policy recommendations. For instance, OPM reviewed practices within 17 projects funded by the Multi-Donor Fund for Aceh and Nias (a $650-million fund for the two provinces affected by the 2004 Tsunami and 2005 earthquake), using an analytical framework which included a focus on inclusion and equity issues and made practical recommendations for improving project implementation and the monitoring and evaluation of these areas. 

At a different level, OPM conducted a study on the political economy of sanitation, in order to systematically understand and help practitioners manage the political economy of pro-poor sanitation investments and service provision. The analysis led on to practical advice to sanitation practitioners to help them better manage stakeholder relations and the complex institutional relationships of the sanitation sector in order to enhance the design, implementation and effectiveness of operations that provide pro-poor sanitation investments and services.

Policies aimed at addressing poverty have progressed significantly over recent decades. For instance former residual welfare strategies have been replaced by social protection poverty reduction policies, which incorporate wider aims and concepts around risk reduction and mitigation. At the same time the limitations of poverty analysis and measurement based solely on income or consumption have also been increasingly recognised. This has led to widening understandings of poverty which incorporate a range of other concepts, such as livelihoods, vulnerability and risk. These help widen the focus to a multi-dimensional understanding of poverty and emphasise the role that assets and capabilities have in improving social and economic well-being.

Assets are typically categorised into five types of capital – physical, natural, human, financial and social. Individually and together, they affect the capacity of individuals to be productive, take advantage of opportunities and protect themselves against shocks. Changes in the values or endowments (stocks) of assets affect both income and non-income dimensions of well-being. OPM’s work across a number of sectors aims to build equitable access to a range of assets, for instance through increasing access to financial services or education and health services.

Increased or changing asset values and endowments in these areas above are often easily measurable. Others, however, such as various types of social capital – the rules, norms and systems of reciprocity and trust which are embedded within social structures and institutions – are less tangible. This can make them less understandable, and hence perhaps less relevant, to policy makers. However, they still have an important influence on development outcomes and well-being, and often influence levels of inclusion and equitable access to other assets. In the Maldives, OPM is currently conducting the monitoring and evaluation of an Integrated Human Development Project. This has raised interesting issues regarding how the levels and types of social capital in different locations appear to influence the implementation of the project, and we integrated a social capital module into the latest research to help policy makers understand this better. 

Aside from social capital, other less tangible assets such as informational assets and psychological assets – e.g. the capacity to aspire, or envision change – are also important in determining development outcomes. The capacity to envision an alternative, for instance, can affect how individuals and groups choose to invest in or build up other assets: if social norms and institutions have traditionally led parents and others to view children working in the fields at busy times of the farming year as a natural requirement of their supporting role within the family (as in Egypt, for instance, where OPM conducted a Situation Analysis of Children and Women), then this can lead to under-investment in other forms of capitals, such as education (and this may also be affected further by other informal institutions, such as gender based social norms and customs).

These more intangible types of assets are often overlooked, but our experience shows the value of various types of analysis (e.g. vulnerability analysis, livelihoods analysis, gender analysis, etc.) in providing an understanding of the different asset endowments of different groups in both development policy and practice.


Gender is not another word for women. Gender is about both women and men and the context-specific roles, activities and responsibilities associated with being male or female in a specific society. It is concerned with relationships between men and women and the relative voice and bargaining power of individuals in households, communities and organisations. Like religion, ethnicity or class being male or female shapes individuals’ opportunities to participate in the economy and society. Gender analysis is therefore an important part of social analysis, exploring and highlighting the relationships between men and women at different organisational levels: within the household, in communities or society. 

Development outcomes for men and women and boys and girls are influenced by formal and informal institutions ranging from a country’s legislative framework, market incentives to norms and values influenced by a society’s historical, social and religious context. Gender analysis therefore needs to go beyond the questions of: Who does what? Who decides? Who gains? Who loses? Which women? Which men? It needs to ask: How are decisions made? Why is power distributed the way it is? How is service delivery contributing to inequality? At the same time gender cuts across other identities, such as ethnicity, race, geographic location, class, caste and social status. Embedding gender in social analysis therefore aims at an improved understanding of the multidimensional nature exclusion can take. 

Data needs for gender and social analysis can be complex. Much readily available quantitative data takes the household as its unit of analysis and does not provide much information on individuals within the household, which is crucial for understanding gender issues. Moreover, roles and responsibilities associated with men and women, as well as their relationships, are highly context-specific and vary considerably across social groups. While this limits the power of statistical analysis in some ways, it opens the door for more qualitative research approaches, as well as combining quantitative and qualitative data. OPM has recently completed a “how-to note” for DFID on conducting better gender analysis using household survey data. 

Gender and social analysis are an intrinsic element of our work on poverty analysis and evaluations. More specifically, OPM has undertaken innovative work for DFID to quantify the impact of gender and social exclusion on Millennium Development Goal (MDG) indicators in Pakistan, undertaken an evaluation of gender equality mainstreaming by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and reviewed the impact of the Paris Declaration on donor interventions emphasising cross-cutting themes of human rights, gender equality and social exclusion. 

We recognise the importance of appropriate gender mainstreaming in order to systematically support gender equality and bring women’s as well as men’s concerns to the centre of project and policy design, implementation and monitoring and evaluation. More specifically, gender mainstreaming needs to support both practical and strategic gender needs: the former refers to what men and women need to carry out their roles more effectively (e.g. reduce the time women spend fetching water through better water supply) while latter refers to addressing institutional power structures and social relationships that hinder gender equality in the long term. 

OPM has been involved in various mainstreaming initiatives that address these two elements. For, example, we recently helped the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to design two gender mainstreaming strategies for a Municipal and Environmental Infrastructure project in Romania and for a solid waste management investment in Georgia. We are also working with the EBRD and the municipality of Bishkek to comprehensively mainstream gender in the municipal and environmental infrastructure sector as well as support equal opportunities in the workplace.

“Empowerment” has become a commonly used term within international development discourses and is often seen within donor and government project, programme and policy documents. A decade ago the 2000/01 World Development Report recognised that empowering poor people – by making state and social institutions more responsive to them – is key to reducing poverty. More recently, empowerment has been increasingly recognised as a development objective in its own right and not just as a means to an end. But as with many other terms, it is often understood in multiple ways and this complicates its usage, with the danger that its use in development policy becomes more rhetorical than meaningful. 

Integrating the concept into poverty analysis is hindered by difficulties in measuring and monitoring progress towards empowerment. In order to “operationalise” the concept and ensure its usefulness, it is necessary to define it in a particular way. Given the increasing emphasis currently being placed on measuring and demonstrating impact of development interventions and policies, it has then become important to think about how empowerment can subsequently be tracked or “measured”. Whether this can be done in a meaningful way is perhaps subject to debate. Poverty has usually been measured through an income- or consumption-based approach that measures material outcomes. However, an approach to measuring empowerment has to capture processes and relational changes that are less predictable, less tangible, more contextual and more difficult to quantify in data collection and analysis. This raises challenges relating to issues of meaning, causality and comparability.

Unsurprisingly, given these challenges, there have been relatively few practical attempts to assess whether policy interventions are actually having an empowering effect, even when this is an explicit policy objective. Despite these difficulties, OPM has worked with the World Bank to develop and operationalise an analytical framework to monitor and measure empowerment. The framework was based on a definition of empowerment which centred around the capacity to make choices and transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes, with this capacity being determined by an iterative relationship between asset-based “agency” and “opportunity structure” (the institutional context within which people live). 

Policies and interventions which aim to empower people also address the capacity of citizens to reinforce change by demanding better governance and holding officials to account. Empowerment as a means (if not an end in itself) is implicit in initiatives to increase accountability. Support to increase accountability has often focussed on the state itself – the “supply” side. However, more recent emphasis has been both on strengthening citizen “voice” (or the “demand” side – i.e. the capacity of and opportunity for citizens, including the poor and traditionally marginalised, to directly participate in policy-making processes) as well as on strengthening accountability mechanisms that enable the state to respond to these demands. OPM’s research and experience in understanding accountability processes between government officials, state institutions and citizens and the socioeconomic and political context within which these operate enables us to support the design and implementation of practical and improved accountability mechanisms which address both the demand and supply sides of the relationship. We have also undertaken evaluations of development aid for strengthening Citizens’ Voice and Accountability (CV&A), for instance in Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a multi-country evaluation of CV&A for the Evaluation Core group of seven donor partners.