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Objectives

The Research Project seeks to advance an integrated response to unemployment, inequality and poverty, building on both South African research and experience and international evidence on the challenges of employment, growth and distribution, and associated policy options.

The Project seeks to advance an integrated response to unemployment, inequality and poverty, building on both South African research and experience and international evidence on the challenges of employment, growth and distribution, and associated policy options. 

In developing a better understanding of growth and distribution dynamics, the Project aims to bring together complementary and sometimes competing perspectives and methodologies – recognizing both the complexity and the interconnectedness of social and economic trends. The Project seeks to articulate a multi-disciplinary framework for understanding these dynamics, and will provide opportunities for engagement between the research community, policy advisors and civil society stakeholders. 

Internationally, the global economic crisis has been accompanied by renewed interest in distributional issues, including widening inequality over the past thirty years within many countries alongside convergence in cross-country incomes and living standards. Comparative international experience in adapting to changed economic conditions and protecting jobs and livelihoods has contributed to an active debate about employment, growth and income security policies. 

While global developments have impacted on South Africa, there are also deep-rooted features of the structure and history of our economy that have shaped current trends. Government policies, market forces and institutional factors interact in complex ways. Short-term trends can mask longer term trajectories, and well-intentioned policy reforms can have unintended disruptive or damaging long-term consequences. The Project aims to improve understanding of the impact of international trends and domestic structural features on these connected patterns of growth, development and distribution, as a contribution to public discourse and policy making. It will seek to sharpen understanding of the impact of policies and government programmes on employment, income distribution and inclusive growth.

Drawing on a series of discussions hosted by SALDRU in 2011, an integrated unemployment research framework developed by Frederick Fourie1  provides a constructive point of departure for the research project. This framework identified the fragmentation of the unemployment debate into separate discourses or silos – macroeconomic, labour economic and development/poverty analysis – as a major cause of many knowledge gaps, probably also contributing to the failure of policies to make significant inroads into unemployment, inequality and poverty. Such fragmentation also affects the debate on income inequality and inclusive growth.

A related problem is a reluctance explicitly to incorporate the full spectrum of economic activities and livelihoods, i.e. the formal sector, the informal economy and survivalist/subsistence activities, in research and policy analysis. Our policy research needs to recognize and be grounded in the diversity and complexity of the South African context.

The research will, accordingly, have a strong focus on generating cross-discourse engagements, drawing on insights from several discourses, methodologies, data sources, sub-disciplines and disciplines – including labour economics, macroeconomics, development economics and poverty analysis, sociology, political science and legal studies – thereby aiming to generate a broad-based and integrated knowledge base to underpin consistent and richly-informed policy.

The Project aims to inspire and develop a focused community of researchers working in a structured programme of research in the three focus areas. It will involve researchers and research teams from an inclusive network of South African universities and research entities. Through this inclusive approach it hopes to:

  • involve a diversity of South Africa’s established researchers on labour markets, inequality, poverty, development, growth and social policy,
  • support post-graduate work in the focus areas, and 
  • build the capacity of students and researchers from previously disadvantaged communities. 

Another explicit aim is to improve public understanding of, and public discourse on, these complex problems. Critical debate will be pro-actively stimulated through the effective dissemination of results and the provision of public forums for informed and open debate through publications (working papers, newsletters, briefs, etc.), an online forum, workshops, seminars, conferences and books.


1Fourie, FCvN. 2011. The South African unemployment debate: three worlds, three discourses? Working Paper 63 (June), SALDRU, University of Cape Town.