Social protection is not only a human right — in the long term it also boosts economies, says Prof. Franziska Gassmann, as she takes up her new Chair in ‘Social Protection and Development’ at Maastricht University. Below she explains why and how social protection works, and how much more needs to be done.
If the first Sustainable Development Goal (“End poverty in all its form everywhere”) is to be taken seriously, most low and middle-income countries have a considerable challenge ahead. While an estimated 1 billion people have escaped extreme poverty since the early 1990s and global poverty rates have dropped considerably, the absolute number of people living in poverty has hardly changed. Moreover, the living standard of the extremely poor has not improved (Ravallion 2016). Achievement of the first SDG will require substantial efforts at global and national levels, particularly with respect to policies that address chronic poverty traps and improve the lives of poor and vulnerable populations.
The right to social protection has been progressively recognised and realised around the world over the last century. Social protection and a decent standard of living are human rights, entrenched in international agreements such as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (United Nations 1966), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations 1989) and the ILO’s Social Protection Floor Recommendation (International Labour Organization 2012). These agreements have been signed, ratified or adopted by most countries of the world.
The potential of social protection systems for the eradication of poverty is reflected in SDG target 1.3: “Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable” (United Nations 2015). Social protection also features prominently in targets under SDG#5 (Achieving gender equality and empowerment for women and girls) and SDG#10 (Reduce inequality within and among countries), which explicitly call on countries to adopt social protection policies.
Evidence of the positive impacts of social protection policies, and in particular of cash transfers on the lives of the poor and vulnerable has accumulated over the past decade. It is widely acknowledged that social protection policies strengthen resilience against economic, social and climate shocks, support growth and productivity and act as social stabiliser. Over the last decade a paradigm shift has taken place in the international community, whereby policies to protect and improve the livelihoods of individuals, families, communities and societies are no longer seen as just a cost to any given economy, but as a long-term social investment. This stems from the recognition that countries with well-functioning social protection systems (which include efficient and accessible social service delivery) appear to be the most effective in reducing poverty and inequality as well as promoting human development.
If social protection is a human right, it is a legal entitlement rather than a matter of charity – and it is the responsibility of the state to provide it. Most countries in the world, rich or poor, offer some, although often minimal, forms of social protection to their citizens. In order for social protection systems to effectively support the achievement of the SDGs, countries need to extend coverage with social protection, particularly among the poorest, increase the level of support and ensure access to education, health, labour markets and infrastructure. Many countries have formulated social protection strategies, either as a stand-alone document, or as part of national poverty reduction strategies (World Bank, 2015). But having a strategy is no guarantee for its actual implementation – as strategies are often under-funded and guided by ‘wishful thinking’ embodying a vision that will take many years to achieve.
Why invest in social protection?
Why have countries, including some of the poorest in the world, decided to invest in social protection? Why are other countries lagging behind despite the overwhelming international evidence? What are the main factors behind investments in social protection? Our own research tells us that countries with functioning government institutions and with societies in favour of redistribution are more likely to invest in social protection (Gassmann et al. 2016). While the international community plays an important role in creating global awareness about social protection, their influence at the national level is often limited, unless there is clear leadership and trust among partners (Cherrier, Gassmann, et al., 2013; Cherrier, 2017). While economic growth remains essential for development, social protection can create a virtuous circle thereby strengthening economic growth and making it inclusive (Mideros, Gassmann et al., 2016; Tirivayi et al., 2013).
We now need to further our knowledge on the social, economic and political factors influencing the introduction and extension of social protection systems in low- and middle-income countries. Moreover, most of the available evidence on the impact of social protection on the lives of the poor and vulnerable focuses on the short term, while we know relatively little about long-term effects (not only at household level, but also at the meso and macro levels).
In order to find answers on how to move forward, we must take an interdisciplinary approach to research on social protection and development issues. If development is to become inclusive, we need to search for creative policy solutions based on evidence-based policy analysis; we need to think out-of-the box and look for inclusive innovations.
In the coming years, we will focus not only on better understanding which mechanisms and instruments are effective and cost-efficient given a specific economic and social environment, but also critically assess the potential long-term effects of public and private social protection investments from a socio-economic, public finance and human rights perspective. Our research will help us better understand how social protection impacts intermediate objectives such as the accumulation of human capital; the investment in, protection of and accumulation of productive assets; labour market participation; and the conditions under which social protection contributes to inclusive growth.
There is a strong demand for rigorous public policy analysis to inform policy decisions at all levels thereby strengthening transparency and accountability of key policy stakeholders. We will engage with governments, bilateral donor agencies and international organisations and contribute to the public debate at national and international level.
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NOTA BENEThe opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.