Social exclusion has been defined by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) as ‘a process by which certain groups are systematically disadvantaged because they are discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, caste, descent, gender, age, disability, HIV status, migrant status or where they live. Discrimination occurs in public institutions, such as the legal system or education and health services, as well as social institutions like the household.’

The concept of social exclusion arose in response to dissatisfaction with approaches to poverty that focused on income alone. However, the term remains contested and there is no agreed definition. Most commonly, social exclusion is seen to apply to groups, involving the exclusion of individuals due to their membership of particular groups that suffer discrimination. Different understandings of social exclusion emphasise different aspects: the groups at risk of being excluded; what people are excluded from (e.g. employment, education, citizenship, respect); the negative impact of social exclusion (e.g. low income, poor housing); the processes driving exclusion; and the agents involved.

There is agreement, however, that social exclusion is multidimensional: it encompasses social, political, cultural and economic dimensions, and operates at various social levels. It is dynamic, in that it impacts people in various ways and to differing degrees over time. It is also relational: it is the product of unequal power relations in social interactions. It can produce ruptures in relationships between people and society, which result in a lack of social participation, social protection, social integration and power. However, there is rarely a complete lack of access, so there is some arbitrariness in where the social exclusion lines are drawn, and who is perceived to be excluded.

The focus on process and relations complements the concept of inequality, which focuses more on disparities between different categories of people. ‘Social inequalities’, for example, are conceptualised as constraints on opportunity, in accessing education or healthcare for example. They are based on class and other status ascriptions such as gender, age or ethnicity. However, such a focus on structural constraints can ignore the actors who are continuously building and transforming these structures. Many authors therefore see social exclusion as a useful perspective because it offers an actor-oriented approach, which points to who is doing what, in relation to whom. It also helps identify and tackle issues of power.

In aid, exclusion has become popular with non-economic social scientists. This is due to its focus on societal institutions, actors, relationships and processes. In these, disparity in income or lack of access to social services may be both an indicator and an outcome.

The literature identifies several approaches, lessons and tools that aid actors can draw on to address social exclusion:

  • Policy instruments, such as:
    • donors adopting specific policies and plans against social exclusion.
    • working on cross-cutting processes that can tackle the manifestations and causes of social exclusion. Examples include advancing inclusive institutions, anti-discrimination legislation, human rights, and affirmative action. Programmes that support voice, empowerment and accountability are also beneficial. So is targeted action for the inclusion for specific excluded groups, such as women and girls, and persons with disabilities. Evidence also shows that aid actors can tackle social exclusion in difficult settings, such as violent conflict and peacebuilding.
  • Sectoral action, for instance on inclusive growth, service provision, social protection, information and communication technologies (ICTs).
  • Learning from typical challenges for international aid, such as lessons from experiences with Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRSPs) and lessons on the role of civil society and social movements.