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FEATURE STORY September 2, 2020

Five Things You Need to Know About Social Sustainability and Inclusion


Mother and daughter in Ouarzazate, Morocco

Aarthi Sivaraman/World Bank


  • The Social Sustainability and Inclusion Global Practice (GP), formerly known as the Social Development GP, has a new strategic direction that focuses on creating more inclusive societies, enhancing the empowerment of citizens, and fostering more resilient and peaceful communities.
  • Social sustainability is also about expanding opportunities for all people today and tomorrow. Together with economic and environmental sustainability, it is critical for poverty-reduction and shared prosperity.
  • The Environmental and Social Framework is an integral part of social sustainability.

Over the past year, pervasive challenges have undermined poverty reduction and inclusive growth. Most recently, COVID-19 and the associated economic crisis have reversed progress and revealed long-standing systemic inequalities and exclusion. The crisis is projected to increase extreme poverty by between 73 and 117 million people. Recent protests on racism and persistent discrimination also underscore structural barriers to opportunity and prosperity for so many.

A new Global Practice called Social Sustainability and Inclusion (SSI) – formerly known as Social Development – reflects the importance we place on addressing these barriers to development and strengthening our focus on people who have been excluded from economic and social opportunities. Here are five things you need to know about SSI.

#1: Social sustainability is about inclusive and resilient societies where citizens have voice and governments respond.

The building blocks of social sustainability are inclusive, just, and resilient societies where citizens have voice and governments listen and respond. Such societies support growth and poverty reduction today and into the future.

Social sustainability works alongside economic and environmental sustainability.   In the past, the emphasis was on economic sustainability, and then on environmental sustainability, with increasing concerns over climate change and biodiversity loss.  But with a growing awareness of the challenges of fragility, persistent inequality, and racial discrimination, social sustainability has been recognized as central to growth and poverty reduction. 

The SSI GP helps marginalized and vulnerable people overcome obstacles that prevent them from fully participating in society and supports people’s efforts to shape their own future. It does so in three ways: creating more inclusive societies, enhancing the empowerment of citizens, and fostering more resilient and peaceful communities.

#2: Social inclusion is about creating opportunities for all people and addressing deep rooted systemic inequalities

Persistent discrimination and exclusion of the most marginalized come at a high cost to both people and the economy. Globally, the loss in human capital wealth due to gender inequality is estimated at $160.2 trillion. Afro-descendants continue to experience significantly higher levels of poverty (2.5 times higher in Latin America). 90 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school. In many countries, it is especially difficult to tackle LGBTI exclusion, discrimination, and violence. To date, 70 countries continue to criminalize homosexuality.

The SSI GP focuses on increasing opportunities for all marginalized people to participate fully in markets, services, technologies, and society. In Panama, for example, this means working with Indigenous communities and their traditional leaders to improve the quality of health, education, water and sanitation services. In Bosnia, it means leading a study that shows the high socioeconomic costs of discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.


#3: Empowerment is about supporting people to be drivers of their own solutions

The centerpiece of our operational work has focused on Community-Driven Development (CDD) programs, which empower communities to be architects of their own solutions for growth and poverty reduction. Building on participatory approaches and a community’s own values, CDD programs improve community services and basic infrastructure to help residents, especially the most vulnerable, reach their potential and develop their livelihoods. They also strengthen the capacity of residents and community leaders to articulate their needs and engage with local and regional governments. How does this work in practical terms? In Cambodia, it works by mobilizing citizens to assess the performance of primary schools, health centers and local government as part of a national decentralization program.

SSI also works across task teams to build citizen engagement tools into our investment projects.  Engaging citizens is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it provides insight into how the crisis affects communities and can enable real-time course correction. In Afghanistan, citizen engagement means working with communities to share COVID-19 prevention messages through WhatsApp and telegrams that reach the people most disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including refugees/IDPs, disabled, poor women, and nomads. These communication channels are two-way, allowing citizens to receive support and share information on the changing situations in their communities.

#4: Creating resilient societies requires working in the most fragile and difficult environments

For people living in the most challenging environments, we strengthen resilience by creating opportunities to thrive. We do this by building strong households and communities that can withstand divisions caused by conflict, violence and exogenous shocks such as climate change or pandemics. That’s why the majority of operations in SSI focus on building social cohesion in countries that are tackling conflict and violence, and we are expanding our work to help address the social dimensions of climate change. In fragile countries, we support monitoring, participatory service delivery, peace building and reconciliation processes, and targeted efforts to reduce interpersonal violence.

Over the past few years, we have redoubled our efforts to address gender-based violence (GBV), where we support over $300 million in operations aimed at addressing GBV. Our forced displacement work in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti also includes a focus on GBV.

What does all of this mean in practical terms? In Myanmar, it means helping the country rebuild from multiple and in some cases decade-long conflicts through the National Community Driven Development project that reached over seven million beneficiaries in 63 townships. Communities built or rehabilitated 5,500 schools, constructed more than 4,600 water systems and almost 13,000 kilometers of footpaths and access roads, and generated 8.2 million days of labor with wages of $32.8 million paid to date (of which 36% was paid to women). And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this means partnering with organizations like Panzi Foundation to make a strong, positive difference in the lives of survivors by providing them with access to a range of services, from medical care to legal aid.

#5: The Environmental and Social Framework is an integral part of social sustainability

Social risk management is a significant part of what we do, and this work has expanded with the new Environmental and Social Framework (ESF).  The ESF boosts protections for people and the environment, builds country capacity on social and environmental management, and makes important advances in areas such as transparency, accountability, nondiscrimination, and public participation. Our Social Specialists work across Bank projects on important social issues including gender empowerment, gender-based violence, labor and working conditions, inclusion of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, and stakeholder engagement.

The ESF forms an integral part of the three main pillars of social sustainability: inclusion, empowerment, and resilience. What does this mean in practical terms? For inclusion, this means leveraging the ESF in Senegal to design more inclusive transportation services. In Bangladesh, this means using the ESF to provide displaced Rohingya women with safe spaces, psychological support, and midwifery and referral services. And in Tajikistan, it means ensuring vulnerable groups like female-headed households and disadvantaged youth receive more opportunities.