How far should social protection go?

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20 April 2011

The Centre for Social Protection´s conference ‘Social Protection for Social Justice’,  came, in the words of the Institute for Development Studies’ Stephen Devereux, a full 11 and ¾ years after the term ‘social protection’ was first coined. Since then, social protection has risen steadily up the development agenda, and emerging economies such as Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa have rolled out extensive schemes which transfer cash directly to the poor. This conference challenged delegates to think more critically about the role and limits of such schemes in promoting social justice and challenging structural inequalities.

Although the speakers generally agreed with the emerging consensus that cash transfer programmes are essential tools for improving the basic living standards and wellbeing of the poor, this was no self-congratulatory love-in. The tone was set by a provocative paper by Jimi O Adesina of Rhodes University, South Africa which accused the ‘social protection paradigm’ of accepting a narrow definition of social justice and overlooking broader policy instruments to promote equity. Adesina´s paper was deliberately (and successfully) provocative, and although it wasn't accepted by everybody, it did raise some issues which were reinforced by talks given over the following three days.

The perils of targeting

Firstly, targeting social protection at the ‘ultra-poor’ is a self-limiting approach, and fraught with problems. Not only does it increase the risk of stigmatising recipients, it may actually reduce the state’s capacity to raise further revenues by failing to get the buy-in of the non-poor. Most importantly, excessive targeting risks creating significant social divisions, something that was vividly described in a presentation by Ian MacAuslan and Nils Riemenschieder of Oxford Policy Management.

The need to think big

Cash transfer programmes work, but they have their limits. Speakers such as IDS’s visiting fellow Gabrielle Kohler and Rhodes University’s David Fryer worried that they might even be used as a smokescreen for a lack of policies to address structural inequalities, such as pro-employment reforms and labour rights.

Nowhere is this more the case than South Africa, where a relatively progressive system of cash grants exists alongside endemic unemployment. The same might be said of employment guarantee programmes, such as India´s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). What does it mean to have a law guaranteeing the rights of rural Indians to 100 days’ work in the broader context of an economy which fails to absorb their labour and where the rights of workers and migrants are poorly protected?

Stuck in silos

Just like any other field, social protection professionals should not work in ‘silos’, where they are segregated from other issues which may have overlapping goals and complementarities. Discussions of the ‘affordability’ of social protection, for example, often assume that social protection is the only field that matters, when other crucial policy areas like health, education and water and sanitation might be similarly ‘affordable’ depending on one’s point of view. In fact, research by the ODI suggests that whereas social protection may be technically ‘affordable’ in most countries, investing fully in it would come at the expense of investing in other crucial policy areas. Likewise, there is a need to emphasise the links between the lack of social protection, and the causes of fiscal constraints, such as corruption, unfair trade rules, corporate tax evasion and the lack of progressive tax systems. For me, though, the most glaring example of ‘silo-isation’ is the continued estrangement of social protection from the emerging issue of adaptation to climate change, something which speakers at the conference attempted to address.

Where to now?

But how far should social protection go? Should it just stick to its niche? Or should it look further afield and think more about its place in broader development strategies aimed at promoting employment and challenging inequalities? My own feeling is that there is indeed a need to look beyond cash transfers to some of the broader policy and structural issues which create inequality and vulnerability.

But any extension of the social protection remit cannot come at the expense of losing the momentum that has been achieved. The spread of cash transfer policies was one of the development successes of the last decade, and it would be a criminal error to overlook the fact that there are still too many people who lack even the most basic social protection service. Considering that most of these people are often the most severely affected by new causes of vulnerability like climate change, food and fuel price crises, the case for social protection in the world´s poorest countries has never been stronger.

The CSP’s conference on ‘Social Protection for Social Justice’ was held at the Institute for Development Studies in Brighton between 13 and 15 April. The abstracts and many of the full papers are available online on the CSP’s website.

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