According to figures released by Eurostat in December, approximately 24% of Europe’s population – close to 120 million people – were considered to be at risk of poverty and social exclusion in 2011, a percentage increase compared to the previous year.

On 5-7 December 650 participants from over 40 countries gathered in Brussels for the second Annual Convention on Poverty and Social Exclusion hosted by the European Commission in partnership with the Cyprus EU Presidency. The Convention discussed the progress made in reaching the Europe 2020 target of lifting 20 million people out of poverty and the key objectives of the upcoming Social Investment Package to be published by the Commission in February 2013.

In the opening session, high-level speakers from the EU’s institutions talked of the need for policy initiatives that support sustainable and inclusive growth as a path out of the current crisis. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy emphasised that “expenditures for employment or education and reduction of social exclusion need to be sheltered as much as possible”, while Commission President José Manuel Barroso spoke of “a real social emergency” for Europe and its social model, stressing that countries which have “the most effective social protection systems” and “the most developed social partnerships” are more successful economically as well.

A series of workshops and side-events also aimed to promote more targeted and innovative social investment and social protection initiatives. In a workshop on e-inclusion chaired by ESN Chief Executive, John Halloran, participants discussed how digital technology can add value and contribute to the reshaping of social protection systems with projects, such as Fast Track IT (Ireland) and the City of London Local Government (UK). Some interesting points were also raised in the workshop:

  • There is a need to organise resources which already exist in an inclusive way locally & ICT could be a key tool for this.
  • Digital technology is an important tool for individuals (empowerment and skilling, social capital, access to resources) as well as organisations (improving methodologies, more user friendly services, reaching target groups, for coordination and monitoring).
  • People with experience of poverty should be involved in the ICT training of their peers.

The ministerial session saw discussions about Member States and their social priorities for the future. Danish Social Minister Karen Haekkerup argued that there is a need for more evidence-based learning, with a focus on spreading measures that are proven to work well across Europe. Jan O’Sullivan, Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing in Ireland, talked about ‘poverty proofing’ economic reforms in her own country. In the closing statements of the convention, Koos Richelle, Director General, DG Employment, emphasised the need for sustainable and effective social budgets which put long-term investment in human capital at the forefront of social policy.

Over the years, ESN has worked with its Members on the issue of poverty and social exclusion. In 2011, ESN organised a poverty workshop where Members emphasised that combating poverty and social exclusion at the local level is as much about education and employment as about basic welfare benefits and specialist social work services.

As the concluding messages from the second Annual Convention underline, the Social Investment Package should aim to reinforce the social aims at a time of economic crisis by investing in human capital and social cohesion and truly contributing to the headline target of reducing the number of people living in poverty and social exclusion in Europe by 2020.