Creating a Future - Family as the Fabric of Society


We are all of one mind…

Nobody seriously denies the importance of family relationships to human development. It is well known that the family space is crucial to the transmission and acquisition of the elements inherent to human dignity: responsibility, rationality, love, language, freedom, justice, etc. The work of Piaget and his many successors only confirmed something which was always widely recognized: human beings are born into family relationships; children accede to language, rea- son, freedom through their parents; and parents introduce their children to social life and the institutions organizing our common world.

But this does not seem to be enough to make it a priority in the UN Agenda, as the Secretary General timely remarks: “At the international level, the family is appreciated but not prioritized in development efforts. The very contribution of families to the achievement of development goals continues to be largely overlooked (…).”1

But then not that much…

The «why» question is unavoidable: why has the family’s important role in peace, human rights and development policies been overshadowed? Why is the UN system reluctant to adopt and further advance family based policies regarding development?

It is certainly not out of a lack of UN declarations recognizing its importance! Although there is no explicit family framework at the international level numerous UN documents have shown a very consistent recognition of the role and importance of family. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that the family is the “natural and fundamental group unit of society” and is therefore “entitled to protection by society and the State” (1948, Art. 16 §3); Elsewhere “that [family] plays a key role in social development and is a strong force of social cohesion and integration” (Social Summit+5 2000, III §56). Or that “for the full and harmonious development of the children’s personality, they should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” (Children Summit, 1990, §18).

The root causes of the problem…

To understand the lack of interest at the UN for a family approach to development, we have to look for reasons other than a lack of legislation. The present practical mistrust over the notion of family directly results from two trends: the first has been the push for sexual and reproductive rights; the second is the evolution of practice and law in western countries over marriage and family. Both have brought a sort of stigmatization of family that makes it a non-starter for development policies.

The debate on sexual and reproductive rights has been divisive around contraception methods and sexuality, hence also on marriage and family conceptions. Typically, to quote family in this context is regarded positioning oneself on the conservative side, opposing the new reproductive rights. Moreover, the ongoing battle for legal recognitions of free and same sex unions in UN texts has had the result of making the use of the word family a conflicting term that parties are keen to avoid in policy making.

Taking a new look on a family perspective for development…

Yet a family perspective should not be reduced and restricted to the two previous debates. The present Working Paper is keen to highlight how much an approach to development issues may gain from adopting a family perspective. Three topics will be covered by the present issue: Migration and Family, Business and Family, And the Social Cost of Family Breakdown. Indeed, family relationships are decisive in order to understand the dynamic of migration and some of its most peculiar problems, whereas the solidarity and security of family relationship are crucial features on which many small and medium enterprises have thrived. In turn, it appears that the fight against poverty is deeply intertwined with family issues, not only in developing countries but also in developed one.

Indeed, in most developing countries the solidarity and security provided by extended family network is the only one that mitigates poverty. Help in time of need, solace in time of grief, shelter in time of war or deterrence; family ties prove to be the backbone of the incredible resilience of the poor. Is this of no importance to International development planning?

At the same time, developed countries see the social cost of family breakup rising steadily and social security systems facing difficulties to fill the void left by the demise of this form of natural solidarity. Is this not something on which we should reflect?

For the option for the poor to be more than just a slogan, we should address the question of family related poverty. In Pope Francis words: “We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Evidence is mounting that the decline of the marriage culture is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills, disproportionately affecting women, children and the elderly. It is always they who suffer the most in this crisis.”2


1. Report of the Secretary-General on the Follow-up to the tenth anniversary of the International Year of the Family and beyond (2011), §9. (A/66/62-E/2011/4, §9).

2. Pope Francis, The Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage, November 17, 2014.

Read the full text of the Working Paper here