RECON Online Working Paper 2010/19

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Social Welfare and Democracy in Europe

What Role for the Private and Voluntary Sectors?



Tess Altman and Cris Shore (University of Auckland)



This paper explores the role of the private and voluntary sectors in helping to fill gaps in public sector social welfare provision and considers the extent to which this augments or weakens the democratic process. While the public sector has tended to be the major provider in European social welfare systems, since the late 1980s there has been a notable trend towards increasing use of privately provided support and grey services as people (and governments) have sought solutions outside of the state welfare system. This shift has been fuelled by an increasing emphasis on measures that encourage efficiency, productivity and competitiveness as well as pressures on the sustainability of welfare systems which have been exacerbated by the recent global financial crisis.

First, the authors discuss the emerging ‘disorganised welfare mix’ and the implications of restructuring welfare regimes according to quasi-market principles. It is asked whether these approaches resolve or exacerbate the ‘dilemmas’ of welfare provision, particularly in terms of wider democratic goals and social inclusion. Second, the authors examine empirical case studies from Britain, the US and New Zealand of the Private Finance Initiative, Asset-Based Community Development and the new contractualism to investigate how adoption of neoliberalising welfare strategies is reconstituting democracy in Europe and beyond. Third, the current state of welfare provision in Europe is mapped through a critical analysis of the European Social Model (EMS) and the Welfare Triangle. Finally, further examples from Europe are used to analyse the contradictions between the goals of social protection and regulation that underpin European social policy and the demands for increased flexibilisation and privatisation promoted by the European Single Market and the rulings of the European Court of Justice.




Democracy – European Social Model – Governance – Social Policy – Welfare State

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