Social exclusion is the denial of access to participation in the public realm, public goods and services for certain groups of people who are minorities, marginalised and deprived. It reflects the power relationship between various social groups and is based on common group characteristics such as gender, age, caste, ethnicity, class, ability or other more specific situations. As a definition, social exclusion reflects the multiple and overlapping nature of the disadvantages experienced by certain groups and categories of the population, with social identity as the central axis of their exclusion. The concept of social exclusion has the added value of expanding our understanding of poverty beyond its indicators to its causes, which are more structural and institutional. Understanding social exclusion also helps us focus on the relationship between various social groups where majority/dominant sections prevent access to, and benefit sharing of, social and economic goods by other social groups. The process of exclusion is embedded in and perpetuated through social institutions. They affect and impact multiple spheres of the life of the affected persons and groups, resulting in multiple deprivations, inequality and poverty among the excluded groups. These institutions and norms are maintained by social sanctions and by punitive measures against those who violate them.
The institutions, being older than developmental interventions, have a tendency to accrue value and benefit to the powerful sections and to exclude those whom the programme proposes to benefit most. In this context, understanding the dynamics of social exclusion can help us progressively design development interventions that are less patronising and more egalitarian, based on the principles of human dignity and worth. The policies and programmes in addressing social exclusion relates to the discussion on human development and human rights. It is obvious that development approaches from the 1950s to the 1980s primarily focused on social and economic development as an outcome of the development process and were less concerned with civil and political rights. During this period, government policies and the development communities were also less concerned with the quality of the process by which the outcomes were achieved. In contrast, the human rights based approach to development recognises both the achievement of a desirable outcome and the establishment of an adequate process to achieve and sustain that outcome. This shift in development towards a human rights perspective has important implications for addressing social exclusion as it encourages one to take a broader, systemic and more holistic view of the issue.