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Back to the roots: an interview with Prof. Bob Deacon

On January 1st 2011 Prof. Bob Deacon* was appointed as the first Chairholder of the UNESCO-UNU Chair in Regional Integration, Migration and Free Movement of People. In June 2014 he passed the baton to Prof. Lorenzo Fioramonti. We met with Prof. Deacon to talk about how the activity of the Chair progressed over the years and about the challenges of the future.

Prof. Deacon, you were the first Chairholder: what did you achieve in the first three years of activity of the Chair?

I think our first task was to explain to policy makers in many world regions why the topic of Regional Integration, Migration and the Free Movement of People was important. It was only within Europe that the concept connected to the official policy agenda and public discourse. We then had to address the huge controversy at the heart of this policy issue: should all people, regional citizens and those migrating from outside a region be free to move inside a region?
Would such movement lead to social integration or social tension?

Then we decided to focus on one, perhaps THE, most controversial aspect of these issues: to what extent should people migrating across borders within a region have the same access to health, education and social protection as national citizens.
Our basic argument was that regions would never be socially integrated unless people moving freely across borders experienced access to social life seamlessly everywhere. We also argued, in order to counteract national chauvinism which often resists the granting of such social rights to migrants, that regional authorities and resources should play a larger part in facilitating such cross border cooperation. In practical terms we compared the EU and SADC as two regions with this focus.

Migration, Regional Integration, Free movement of people: what are the challenges that governments face in these domains?

In terms of the future of policies within this field there are two contending processes. The first is the obvious tendency of people to want to move between and within regions in search of a better life and job opportunities. Such cross border movers usually contribute greatly to the economy to which they move and take up jobs not done by local people. On the other hand there is an increasing movement of citizens within national constituencies who want to resist these migratory moves.  The issue upon which we have focused, access to social provision of cross border movers becomes THE policy issue that is contested. The question is how do we reconcile the universal social rights of outsiders with the claims of insiders who see social benefits as part of a national social contract.  Our argument has been that this requires the raising of the policy issue, and the resourcing of policies above the nationalistic narrow political space to a broader cosmopolitan regional political space. Easier said than done!
What are you expectations for the future of the Chair?

I expect that the new Centre for the study of Governance Innovation where the new Chair is based will act as a focal point for such policy discussion in the coming months and years.
In addition because Professor Fioramonti has global scholarly and policy connections I expect this work on regional integration and free movement with its social consequences will be replicated in other world regions but be housed here with SADC. South-South inter-regional dialogue on these topics is needed.

What are you working on now that you’ve passed the baton to Prof. Fioramonti?

I am now 70. Don’t expect too much. I will continue to contribute a little more in the field of global social policy within the context of my Chair in International Social Policy at the University of Sheffield, UK. I am also just now working with CROP, the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty on the upcoming World Social Sciences Forum in September 2015 (that will be hosted in Durban by the South Africa Human Sciences Research Council ). I am a member of its Scientific Committee and want to organise a panel on “Social Justice, Social Policy, Inequity and Poverty in World Regions”. If this happens I hope it will feed into the 2016 World Social Sciences Report produced by the ISSC on Inequality.

* Bob Deacon is Professor of International Social Policy at the University of Sheffield and Associate Research Fellow at the Comparative Regional Integration Studies Programme of the United Nations University (UNU-CRIS) in Bruges. He has acted as advisor or consultant on aspects of international social policy to the ILO, WHO, UNESCO, UNDP, UNDESA, EC, Council of Europe, and World Bank.