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C2.7 Social Assessment (SA)


SA is a tool used for ensuring the systematic analysis of social impacts of a proposed development or policy action, particularly if these are varied and extensive, and/or a proposal is expected to attract extensive opposition. Social impacts include all the social and cultural consequences of actions that affect the ways in which people live, work, play, relate to one another, organise to meet their needs, and generally cope as members of society. SA has long been used by social scientists for analysing the conditions, causes and consequences of social phenomena and social life.

SA is useful in examining the impacts of structural reforms such as privatisation of state owned enterprises, agricultural reform, reform of basic services, utility reform, civil service reform and fiscal policy. It is also used for large and complex projects (e.g. dams and impoundments, wetlands management). An SA study will consider population impacts, community/institutional arrangements, communities in transition, individual and family level impacts and community infrastructure needs.

SA is particularly useful for assessing:

  • How the costs and benefits of reforms are distributed among different stakeholders over time;
  • How specific groups such as the poor are able to cope with reforms, both physical and institutional, and how they can gain access to market opportunities;
  • How assets (physical, financial), capabilities (human, organisational), economic and social relations (e.g. gender, exclusion) of stakeholders, and institutions affect policy outcomes;
  • Gender issues how womens views, interests and needs shape the decisions that affect their lives as much as men's, in whatever cultural context they live in;
  • The psychological and health effects experienced by individuals and the social and cultural effects experienced by communities;
  • The institutional and financial effects experienced by societies.

To make the assessments, SA uses a range of tools:

  • Qualitative data collection tools (focus groups, semi-structured key informant interviews, ethnographic field research, stakeholder workshops);
  • Surveys that capture direct impacts and behavioural responses to reform, or specific dimensions (e.g. time-use patterns) which affect reform outcomes;
  • National survey data or statistics.

Whilst it may sometimes be necessary to rely on qualitative descriptions, quantitative information should be provided where feasible. Change and predicted effects can be assessed in terms of levels of risk, altered amenity value, community identity and cohesion, etc. (see also Economic Assessment C2.8).

Lessons learned

  • SA should inform and improve the quality of decision-making.
  • SA also has as much value for managing social impacts and managing the discourse of project/policy development as it has for anticipating and documenting impacts.
  • Although often seen as part of EA (Tool C2.6), it may be better carried out separately from main environmental studies, since specialist skills in social sciences may be needed, and the timescales and study areas of the physical and social analyses may be very different.
  • SA should focus on the ways in which people are affected rather than on technical and economic considerations.

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