Interview with Juliana Martínez Franzoni, Associate Professor,University of Costa Rica

 Juliana Martínez Franzoni discusses equity and inequality and elaborates how she believes these are underpinned by power relations, be they gender or generational asymmetries. She further goes on to explain how certain policies, such as minimum and average wages, can be used to balance out some of these inequalities.Often policies are able to reach children and adolescents who have in the past been excluded.


Interview conducted in May 2014


Q.What do you think about current concepts of equity and equality and what is your own perspective on these concepts? What concepts do you use in your work?

A:We use the concept in a context-dependent way. Usually we use equity to refer to policy outputs and equality to refer to social outcomes. As I was thinking about your question, I realize that we are rather pragmatic in the use of both terms.

Q.In your view, what are the main causes of increasing inequities at local, national, and global levels?

A: Beneath inequality there are power relations, not just bad people. This is why it is so difficult to change, whether these power relations have to do with gender or generational asymmetries.

In my research I primarily deal with socioeconomic and gender inequality, which are quite intertwined. Women at the top tend to be more equal to men at the top. To the contrary, women at the bottom are increasingly unequal with men at the bottom and, of course, with women at the top.

We currently witness a global trend that increasingly concentrates more assets in increasingly fewer people. States and public policies can, however, make a big difference. One of the main challenges is whether and how to have sound national but also global regulations regarding taxes but also transfers and services for everyone that alter market inequality within countries and across regions.

For the first time in history, during the past decade most countries in Latin America managed to slightly decrease income inequality. This is incipient and totally insufficient but extremely important: it shows that democracies, governments, politics, social movements, international agencies and collective actors overall can do something to actually change the current state of affairs.

Q. What are the three key results of your research on equity which policy makers and practitioners should know of?

A: In our research, Diego Sánchez-Ancochea, a political economist at the University of Oxford, and I address the double role of labor and social incorporation. The creation of formal jobs and the increase of minimum and average wages have contributed to lower income inequality in the region. However, this has happened in some countries, not in all. Social policy has played a very significant role and has resulted in what many people refer to as the second wave of incorporation to the benefits of state policies since the first half of the 20th century.

This wave of incorporation has reached people who have traditionally been excluded from the most basic public policies. And this includes very importantly children – together with adolescents they make for the majority of the population – and they are being reached in their own terms. So this is something we know.

Our contribution, I would say, is first that it is not just any social policy that can make a long lasting impact in terms of systematically reducing inequality. The lack of adequate social services is a key factor lodging people into poverty, so extending social services to the poorest is a positive change but unless this expansion covers both the poor and the non-poor, the sustainability and quality of these services and the rights that these services assure, or seek to assure will be a under threat.

Moreover, because people are often just one crisis away from poverty, eradicating poverty involves not only lifting people out of poverty but preventing them from falling into it. This is one of the main reasons that many scholars across the globe are revisiting the idea that social policies have to be for all, not just the poor. It is the only guarantee that the poor have, that these policies will be sustainable and will lead to quality in transfers of services and in the rights of guarantees. So this is a controversial idea but we think that reconstructing certain policies actually impacts income distribution and we have evidence to show this is the case.

Secondly, we understand universal social policy in a way that challenges the most expressed notion that universalism is about massive coverage. So, for example, the debate around universal coverage in the post-2015 MDGs basically refers to massive coverage. Now, what happens if millions of people are included yet to very basic services? One child may die because he needs a transplant which his or her services does not include, while the same child might survive if his or her family has contributory access to healthcare. One may rule out the notion that everyone should have access to everything as a naïve, unfeasible idea… one that is costly and out of reach. However, the normative drive, the notion that human rights are for all, is the first for policy makers to figure out what you do first in order to move in the desirable direction in the long run. And the desirable direction is one of social rights guaranteed by the massive coverage of generous and equal services for all.

A third recommendation has to do with the fact that the order in which you do this does affect the outcome. So, for example, governments are increasingly giving attention to early childhood education and care as a policy that is very significant to promote equity. As a consequence policy-makers are tempted to rush and increase coverage regardless of how it is done. A good idea may lead to a myriad of stratified, unequal arrangements – i.e. private providers for some, contributory services for others and yet a different one for the poor often in the hands of a highly diverse array of organizations, ones that once in place cannot be easily altered so the political economy of the power relations that policies are establishing will determine in the middle to long-term whether we are breeding more or less equity.

In our research we refer to policy architectures to discuss the blueprint and set of incentives that can positively create or feed a path, a trajectory that in the long term helps you get closer rather than further away from higher degrees of equity. When it comes to new social policy, the region and the world faces a huge opportunity… And one that may also help reopen the case for those “older” services already in place such as healthcare services or old-age transfers. We do see policy innovation along these lines in the globe, particularly in the South.

Q. Do you have evidence of innovative best practices in policies or programs that have really achieved more equity for children?

A: In my case, most evidence has to do, first, with policy outputs, rather with social outcomes. That is, evidence regarding how can policy make progress towards guaranteeing that all children 0-3 have access to early childhood education and care, rather than regarding the actual outcomes of this still unmet goal. In our work, sound evidence useful to policy makers has to do with policyarchitectures, with the set of incentives that feeds into policy that delivers universal outcomes, and with the coalitions of actors that can push in this direction.

Q.What are good methodologies or practices to capture or monitor equity for children?

A: I don’t think we are able to say we have good methodologies or practices yet because we did a lot with proxy measures and when it comes to universal social policy, most indicators end up being about coverage, not about the quality or the equity, let alone about equity for children.This is a very interesting question and a question that pushes people like me to think about how weak our tools are in terms of actually gathering data that can be qualitative. One of the critical challenges is to be able to compare not only those countries or regions or communities that are doing things poorly but also the things they do very well. You have to have some kind of comparison baseline.

Q.So this is a challenge then? To have better methods?

A: I think some of the methodologies like the multi-dimensional measures of poverty is quite appropriate. It can positively break down the problem into more than income inequality,which is very important to avoid conflating all forms of inequality – along gender, ethnic and generational lines, for instance- as a matter of income inequality. Yet, the challenge is not always or necessarily to come up with more sophisticated measurement tools. It is also about making better sense of specific situations where different factors interact in very complex ways.Case studies which are often downplayed can be very useful. Because inequality has to do with power structures that are not easily quantifiable. Especially if they engage with comparative analysis and debate, they can nourish policy formation quite effectively. Indeed, if is often about not losing the sense of the whole. In that sense I think we need to do better at combining the qualitative and quantitative tools and techniques available. We probably need to also give more voice to voice of those involved –including children! -. I don’t see much progress in that regard. I think we could do better.

Last but not at all least, in terms of policy outcomes we need to have indicators that easily and comparatively measure coverage but also generosity and equity as the three vortices of universalism and progress towards guaranteeing social rights for all and for children in particular.






  Juliana Martínez Franzoni is Associate Professor at the University of Costa Rica. Her work on social policy formation and socioeconomic and gender inequality in Latin America has been most recently rewarded with fellowships by Fulbright, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and the British Academy. She has published in journals like Social Politics (2012),Development and Change (2011), Global Social Policy (2011) and Latin American Politics and Society (2008). With Diego Sánchez-Ancochea she also has published articles in Latin American Research Review, Development Policy Review and Latin American Politics and Society (forthcoming). Her main goal is to put sound and rigorous research to the services of equity-enhancing policy formation.

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