A Stratification Economics Response to the United Nations

By Franklin Obeng-Odoom

Photo: A scene from the outbreak of the Berbice Revolt, 1763.
Credits: The photo is taken from the cover page of the book ‘The Era of Enslavement c. 1638-1838’ written by David A. Granger with artwork by Barrington C. Braithwaite

A New Social Democracy

Global Development Processes could be understood in many ways; through growth, degrowth, and poverty, for example. The heft of the new United Nations inequality-based approach is that it opens the door for holistic change, not sessional nor sectional analyses.

This approach, developed and canvassed by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UNRISD, can be found in the report, Crises of Inequality: Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract. Highlights of this report are outlined in the UNRISD Flagship Research and Policy Brief published in 2023. More recently, Dr Katja Hujo, a Senior Research Coordinator at UNRISD and the Head of the Bonn Office of UNRISD, also presented the key message of the report at the University of Helsinki event, Towards Eco-Social Contract.

So, this approach warrants attention. Three questions require urgent answers. First does the approach aligns with or contributes to perspectives from the Global South? Second, how can the approach contribute even more to  development priorities in the Global South? And, finally, what is needed to make transitions fair?

In responding to these questions, reflecting on the methodological context of the UNRISD approach is critical for a fuller understanding.

Methodological Context

UNRISD’s eco-social approach is couched in, and based on, an original institutional-economic theory of development.

Instead of blindly following new trends in embracing the World Economic Forum’s concept of ‘polycrises’, elaborately discussed in the 2023 Global Risk Report, the UNRISD approach highlights cumulative crises, stressing how all these are not only interlinked and intersectional, but also reflect specific historical and spatial processes of development and change.

The method of ‘circular and cumulative causation’ was, of course, developed by Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish development economist who co-founded, with Jan Tinbergen, UNRISD, a critical and independent voice in the UN System.

Myrdal, a social democrat, proposed social democracy as an alternative to both capitalism and socialism and social democratic theory of development as an alternative to mainstream development economics approach in works like American Dilemma and Asian Drama. Sweden and Finland have been major contributors to UNRISD funding.

Designated the ‘Scandinavian School of … development’ (here is an additional piece by James H. Street on the same), this approach points to equality of opportunity, not outcome, as the vision of an equal society.

These works have been simultaneously commended and condemned. Subsequent theorising tries to bolster the strengths of the approach and to move away from its weaknesses. Thandika Mkandawire, the Black-Swedish advocate of this approach, and former Director of UNRISD, for example, advanced it to be more interventionist, more Keynesian, more developmentalist. The eco-social transformative approach is a further extension of this tradition.

Addressing the Questions of Alignment, Deepening the Eco-Social Contract

While the diagnosis of the problem appears convincing, UNRISD could develop a more compelling explanation around global social stratification. Indeed, the social form and spatial expression of the inequalities analysed by UNRISD itself suggests that the challenge is no simple case of income or wealth inequality, labour-centred just transition or ‘a crisis of care’ typically viewed from the standpoint largely of formal economies and households without analysing the land question that undergirds these tensions and contradictions.

A broader and institutionalised problem of social stratification shows that underpinning the present cumulative crises is ‘ecological imperialism’. Its roots go as far back as the days of ascendant chattel slavery, capitalism, and what Eric Williams called Capitalism and Slavery. As the 2022 HELSUS Global South Encounters demonstrated, it is limiting to call complexities ‘inequalities’. They reflect a more pervasive hierarchisation that cuts across economy, society, and environment.

The tools for such an analysis cannot be found in original institutional economics. The new field of stratification economics tries to address this gap. William Darity Jr., the field’s pioneering and leading theorist, has extensively documented and demonstrated the history, theories, and empirics of this approach in outlets like the Journal of Economic Literature. One of his reviews offers the field’s state-of-the-art. Many books have also been published in in the Cambridge Studies in Stratification Economics. Other books on stratification economics have been published elsewhere, for example, by Oxford University Press, which recently published a stratification economics approach to Global Migration.  According to one review of this book, ‘stratification economics, … emphasizes the role of land and unequal access to property due to race, ethnicity, class, gender, or some combination thereof…within the context of monopolistic appropriation of rents derived from resources that should serve all citizens of Earth’

Within this way of seeing the development challenge: fiscal and monetary processes could helpfully be reworked. Shifting the incidence of taxation from work to property speculation could help to prevent the private appropriation of socially created rent. Pursuing monetary sovereignty and currency independence is another. A third is sharing the rents from using global currencies. Regardless, without global reparations, including ecological reparations, within the eco-social contract, no amount of eco-social contracts can address the problem that UNRISD so carefully identifies and analyses.

At the global level, power cannot be reduced to nations’ economic standing or status. But voice does not come from the goodwill, humanity, or solidarity of nations, either. It is the high and mighty, those with economic resources that dictate global terms. This ecological imperialism itself can be explained by stratification economics, which also provides a framework to demand and work towards political-economic liberation of the Global South beyond moral science and humanitarian appeals.


To emphasise, a new eco-social transformation is needed. UNRISD has not only correctly identified a need, it has also vigorously developed a thoughtful strategy to realise the vision.

Going from transition to just transition is clearly commendable. For the Global South, the challenge is bigger still: to shift from just transition to a just ecological political economy.