Integrative social protection: A review of some national experiences

by Ben Slay


A graph asking whether our social protection adequate to support out needs?
People are asking whether their social protection systems are sufficient to support them.

In the aftermath of last summer’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, and as the international community moves towards the next UN sustainable development conference in September 2015, we need to keep the spotlight on the world’s most pressing development challenges.


The more we can focus global governance processes around the construction of the post-2015 development agenda, the more successful both are likely to be.


The Rio+20 outcome document, and the global and national post-2015 consultations, remind us that “business as usual” will not put countries onto sustainable development trajectories. (See: Crowdsourcing the next global development agenda)


But they also point out that change for the better not need mean crushing sacrifice. There are some low-hanging fruit for the taking, fruit that can improve our welfare within current financial envelopes. These revolve around breaking silos, and taking genuinely integrated, multi-sectoral approaches to development policies, programmes, and projects.


Nowhere are the needs for—and the potential of—such integrated approaches greater than in social protection.


We know that investments in social protection can yield large payoffs. In addition to contributing to human dignity, equity, and social justice, social protection systems can strengthen competitive advantages on markets abroad while promoting social inclusion at home.


By guaranteeing access to minimum incomes and basic social services, social protection reduces poverty, social exclusion, and household insecurity.


In times of crisis, social protection systems can reduce household incentives to pursue self-defeating coping strategies (such as the selling off of assets) that reduce their productive capacities and living standards over the longer term.


By reducing the impact of economic downturns on workers and their families, social protection also serves as an economic stabilizer, supporting aggregate demand and facilitating recovery—as well as contributing to social stability.


In these ways, social protection systems reduce social insecurity while also helping the vulnerable and excluded to acquire the capabilities they need to fully participate in socio-economic life.


Social protection and human development are therefore inextricably interlinked.


Until recently, social protection has primarily been associated with social insurance, social assistance, and temporary employment programmes such as public works. However, such relatively narrow approaches have proved wanting, in a number of respects.


For one, the weaknesses of managing social assistance and insurance programmes in silos, and in isolation from other related policy areas, have become increasingly apparent.


It is now understood, for example, that efforts to increase social benefits that raise taxes on low-income workers or small businesses can do more harm than good, by pushing commercial activities and employment into the informal sector.


To be effective, social policy must be aligned with policies addressing labour, fiscal, health, and education concerns.


In many Latin American countries, this alignment has been pursued via conditional cash transfer programmes. For example, Brazil’s Bolsa Família, Mexico’s Oportunidades, and Peru’s Juntos link the receipt of social assistance to regular health check-ups for mothers and children, as well as regular school attendance for children.


The Bolsa Família Program turns 10. Maria Cristina, housewifeBrazil's Bolsa Familia programme links the receipt of social assistance to regular health check-ups. Photo: Alberto Coutinho/GovBa.


As remittance inflows—self-targeted anti-poverty transfers—acquire progressively larger dimensions in many developing countries, social protection activities increasingly need to be aligned with global (rather than local and national) labour market flows.


This is particularly the case in the low income former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where ratios of reported remittance inflows to gross domestic product (GDP) are in the 30 to 50 percent range.


Efforts to increase the portability of pensions, that would help migrants from these countries who are working in the Russian Federation to make payments to national pension and health insurance funds in these countries, are good examples of how this alignment can work.


Silos are increasingly being broken within, as well as across, different social sectors. In Peru, for example, more than 80 different social programmes were operated by central, regional, and local governments a decade ago. By 2010, their number had been reduced to 26, with less leakages and corruption, and better coverage of the poor.


Under Turkey’s health transformation programme, five health insurance schemes were consolidated to create a unified General Health Insurance programme with harmonized and expanded benefits. Thanks in part to this consolidation, insurance coverage for Turkey’s poorest population groups rose from 2.4 million people in 2003 to 10.2 million in 2011.


Likewise, the accomplishments of Brazil’s Bolsa Família programme were made possible by the consolidation of a number of different social assistance and regional development programmes, and the creation of a national beneficiary registry (of some 20 million households).


In low-income countries where the vast majority of poor households are engaged in subsistence farming, we now know that social protection initiatives must be aligned with programming for food security, agricultural and rural development, water management, and the extension of basic services.


For example, studies (pdf) have shown that increases in smallholder corn production since 2005 in Malawi have played a significant role in reducing rural poverty and improving food security. The universal provision of seed and fertilizer subsidies to smallholder households has by all accounts played a key role in this progress. Moreover, these subsidies have benefitted women in particular: output growth in crops traditionally cultivated by women exceeded overall agricultural output growth during 2005-2010.


It is also understood that, to be most effective, efforts to reduce socio-economic insecurity in countries facing crisis risks must be aligned with policies and programming for disaster risk reduction and post-crisis recovery.


For example, Tajikistan has faced more than a dozen serious crises (both human-induced and natural) since the cessation of its civil war in 1996. Efforts to address significant levels of poverty, as well as household food and energy insecurity, must reflect the fact that 10 to 15 percent of Tajikistan’s official development assistance (ODA) takes the form of humanitarian assistance (pdf). Efforts to reduce rural poverty and household food and energy insecurity must therefore go beyond social assistance, to include flood and earthquake preparedness measures.


Likewise, effective social protection in countries facing water stress—or other climate change adaptation challenges—needs to address the links between social assistance, food security, and the sustainable management of land and water resources.


For example, South Africa’s Working for Water (pdf) programme employs 20,000 people annually, to remove water-intensive alien tree and plant species from local habitats. Since its 1995 inception, the programme has cleared more than one million hectares of alien plant species, releasing fifty million cubic meters of additional water annually. Much of this water is used for irrigated agriculture, reducing local food insecurity and mitigating drought risk. The programme also targets marginalized groups as potential employees: 60 percent of its staff are to be women, 20 percent young people, and five percent are living with disabilities.


India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme offers beneficiaries up to 100 days of employment, in such activities as reforestation, the maintenance of irrigation canals, soil conservation, and flood control. Job creation under this programme reached 2.5 billion workdays among 50 million households during 2010–2011. Nearly half of the programmes beneficiaries have been women—well above the programme’s one-third target. Likewise, some 50,000 rural families in Brazil who are already recipients of Bolsa Família benefits are now eligible for “green grants”, which are conditional upon the adoption of sustainable forestry and land management practices.


These programmes are not without their problems of course. Realities naturally fall short of aspirations; programmatic effectiveness is often limited by institutional and financial capacity constraints. Still, these programmes clearly show that social protection is no longer “just a social issue”.


Social protection systems are increasingly spanning the economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. Governments and donors looking for “triple wins”—programmes that simultaneously address the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development—need look no farther than innovative, integrative social protection initiatives.


In many developed countries, fiscal and demographic trends are placing increasing strains on social protection systems. In some of these countries, benefits are being scaled back and levels of poverty and social exclusion are increasing.


Veterans of these social protection wars may be forgiven for asking whether the social protection innovations described here—particularly in terms of movement towards universal social protection coverage—are affordable. Such questions are made more pressing by the current slowdown in the rapid economic growth that many developing economies have been enjoying.


On the other hand, some of the “South’s” best known social protection programmes seem to deliver a surprisingly big bang for the buck. For example, the shares of GDP absorbed by Brazil’s Bolsa Família and India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are estimated at one to two percent —a quite affordable slice of the pie. (These relatively low costs reflect the fact that programming to reduce extreme poverty in developing countries may require fewer resources than measures to address social exclusion in developed economies.)


The United Nations social protection floor initiative, which was launched by International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009, and to which many other United Nations agencies (including UNDP and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)) have since subscribed, can support more holistic approaches to household and individual socio-economic security. It can help governments integrate and align social assistance and insurance programmes with related policies concerning labour markets, social service provision, food security, rural development, disaster risk management, environmental protection, and climate change adaptation. The social protection floor provides a platform via which United Nations agencies can support countries that wish to benefit from the experiences mentioned above. 


These exciting global developments differ sharply from the discourse surrounding social protection issues in Central Asia.


In some countries (e.g., Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan), the emphasis is on raising the very small shares of GDP devoted to social protection, and trying to better target social assistance towards poor households. In others (e.g., Uzbekistan), the focus is actually on reducing social assistance, in order to avoid possible dependency and poverty traps.


While efforts to connect with the unfolding global trends in social protection are being made, they seem to be somewhat haphazard. Efforts to strengthen these connections could be well worth undertaking.


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