Social dialogue: The 'how-to' for social and economic development

By Wellington Chibebe 05 May 2015

Community dialogue with a project coordinator for a development program in Ethiopia. How can social dialogue contribute to the development effectiveness agenda? Photo by: Digni Norge / CC BY-NC-ND

The international development community and beyond has identified inequality as one of the main and growing challenges for development. Unemployment, especially among young people, has been recognized as a core source of increasing inequality, also driven by the expanding negative impact on economic and social development of the growing informal sector, particularly for women.

As an instrument of social and economic governance for development, social dialogue can contribute to the development effectiveness agenda. It provides more ownership to people, in particular workers, helps to increase accountability and strengthen domestic policies, and contributes to the design and implementation of better redistribution policies.

Social dialogue also facilitates social peace and is a forceful instrument for reconciliation and reconstruction.

Productive employment and decent work for all is indispensable to sustainable development, in particular in developing countries, as recognized by the Busan Partnership Agreement. In this sense, the International Labor Organization’s decent work agenda is particularly relevant to the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation when we become explicit about its four pillars: employment creation, workers’ rights, social dialogue and social protection.

Particularly interesting to highlight with regard to the core principles of the partnership as well as the priority themes the Global Partnership has identified as its core work, is the “social dialogue.”

Stakeholder engagement and multilevel partnerships

Social dialogue refers to all types of negotiation, consultation or exchanges of information between representatives of employers, workers and governments on issues generally relating to economic and social policy. It can take place from within a particular industry or between industries, from local to national or regional level.

It can produce various outcomes from collective agreements, such as international framework agreements, to national tripartite acts like the Indonesian jobs pact. According to the ILO, effectively implementing economic and social development policies requires three instruments of good “governance,” namely social dialogue, labor inspection and economic policy.

Because social and economic governance are critical when defining and implementing development strategies, social dialogue has been identified as one of the strongest and most effective instruments to deliver on these principles, by directly involving the institutions and actors within these institutions, governing the economic and social spheres. Development policies should be based on genuine democratic ownership, inclusiveness, accountability and oriented toward results.

Examples from all over the world show how social dialogues help the most vulnerable people. In India, trade unions have organized rural informal workers into rural workers’ unions, with 172,270 members in 2011. The Indonesian transport workers union has reached out to informal sector workers to enhance their economic and occupational protection. And self-employed Nicaraguans now have a resource to protect their rights when working with employers and local government.

A tool for policy design and implementation

Social dialogue is not pre-ordained and requires both the political will and an environment that welcomes it. As a prerequisite, it has to allow both workers and employers representations to exist and function equally and effectively. This begins with respect for fundamental freedoms of right to association and right to collective bargaining, representative and independent employers and workers organizations, sound industrial relations practices, functioning labor administrations — including labor inspection — and respect for the “social partners” (understood as workers and employers’ organizations) as the other building blocks of social dialogue.

Effective social dialogue can strengthen economic and social governance, stimulate inclusive growth and combat inequality. It can foster stable and peaceful societies through social cohesion and dispute resolution, while also enhancing accountability and democratic ownership.

An increased orientation toward the role of private sector in delivering sustainable development and the enduring focus on economic growth — coupled with increasing concerns about social and income inequalities — make social dialogue indispensable. Social dialogue and functioning labor markets instruments — for example minimum wages, employment protections like unemployment insurance, collective bargaining or negotiation between employers and workers — are effective tools for reducing inequality, in terms of income and social protection, health and education provisions and public goods in general. In this way, social dialogue with supporting legislation can help reduce the gap between productivity and salaries.

In many conflict-afflicted areas, reconstruction and reconciliation are key to community and state building. In many post-conflict situations and countries transitioning to democracy, social dialogue has proven to be a powerful tool to stabilize social relationships. It can pave a way forward by bringing around the table economic and social actors and governments. Examples of South Africa, Tunisia, Indonesia and many countries in the post-Soviet Eastern Europe show how social dialogue has been at the heart of transitions to democratic and free societies.

In Angola, social dialogues have played an important part in the country’s recovery from a 27-year civil war, and have helped face a number of challenges in the resource extraction sector. In May 2010, President José Eduardo dos Santos established a National Council for Social Dialogue consisting of government ministries, the trade unions UNTA and CGSILA, as well as the Angola Industrial Association and Angola Chamber of Commerce, representing the employers’ side.

Rights, legislation and policies alone do not guarantee implementation and positive development results. Participatory accountability mechanisms need to be in place in order to ensure effective implementation and to allow for different interests to be reconciled and strategies to be adjusted for improved development outcomes. Social dialogue elevates economic and social accountability from the national to the local and enterprise level, and facilitates monitoring and adjustment in view of improving effective and adequate implementation of strategies and measures.

In light of the important part social dialogue may play in the post-2015 development agenda, a joint “partnership on social dialogue” with the Global Partnership stakeholders would provide a relevant “how-to” instrument of economic and social development, particularly in the current context of the growing role of the private sector.

Bringing together various actors under the aegis of the Global Partnership to explore ways to learn from and promote social dialogue — at a global level and in individual donor and partner countries — efforts in cooperation could go a long way toward achieving some of the commitments made since the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.

This article is shared in collaboration with the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation. Read more expert comment at http://devcooperation.org

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About the author

Chibebe wellington
Wellington Chibebe

Wellington Chibebe was elected deputy general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation in 2011. Prior to taking up that position, he served as secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. He joined the ZCTU in 2001 having previously served as president of the national Railway Workers’ Union, which he joined in 1988 after serving his apprenticeship as a diesel plant fitter. Wellington represented Zimbabwe’s trade union movement on numerous occasions at the annual International Labor Conference and various other major international meetings.


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