Many intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) now place a high priority on universal social protection as a means for achieving sustainable development. Is this shift toward universal social protection just talk, or does it signify a more substantial emphasis on welfare within development policy? We present a theoretical framework for understanding discursive changes in global policy as rebranding, fads, trends, or paradigm shifts. We then conduct a comparative, semi-structured review of official language related to social protection used by six key IGOs (International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Development Programme, World Bank, and World Health Organization) across five dimensions of social protection (labor market, health, family, housing, and education) before the introduction of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Then, employing the framework, we analyze the findings of this review to determine the significance of the discursive shift toward universal social protection in the context of the 2030 Agenda. We document that, at present, universal social protection is an influential policy trend that has shaped how IGOs understand and act on social issues. These findings inform theoretical debates on the relationship between discursive and substantive policy change and contribute to a growing literature on transnational social protection. They also have implications for efforts across agencies and sectors to enhance social protection and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

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