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Commission for Social Development Hears Expert Panel on Social Protection

4 Mar 2011



UNRISD Director Sarah Cook spoke on social protection’s role in poverty reduction at the 49th Session of the Commission for Social Development (CSocD) in New York on 14 February 2011. Social protection was the “emerging issue” for discussion at the 49th session of CSocD, which ran from 9 to 18 February. The “priority theme” of the CSocD for 2011-2012 is poverty eradication.

Cook participated in the “Emerging Issue: Social Protection” panel along with Michael Morass of the European Commission, and Michael Cichon of the International Labour Organization.

Protecting people from the vagaries of the market and life’s changing circumstances is one of the main objectives of social policy. Social protection, as a key component of social policy, is concerned with preventing, managing and overcoming situations that adversely affect people’s well-being. It helps individuals maintain their living standard when confronted by contingencies such as illness, maternity, disability or old age; market risks, such as unemployment; as well as economic crises or natural disasters.

The main instruments of social protection include social insurance and social assistance; the former requires the beneficiary to contribute while the latter does not. Social assistance comes in many forms: conditional cash or in-kind transfers; public works or employment guarantee schemes; and unconditional transfers such as non-contributory social pensions or child benefits.

Social protection as a policy approach in the field of development is relatively new, and has become central to many national strategies for achieving the MDGs. Moreover, where chronic poverty and persistent deprivation affect large sectors of the population, social protection programmes are evolving to include elements of promotion as well as protection. That is, they aim to tackle not only sharp declines in income due to contingencies and shocks, but also persistently low incomes and their structural causes. Social protection interventions are also expected to have beneficial effects on economic productivity and enhance political stability and social cohesion.

“Are the instruments being deployed commensurate with the anti-poverty and development objectives they are supposed to address?”, Cook asked. She outlined several reasons for concern, the main one being that in low-income countries today, social protection is often operationalized through a limited set of cash or in-kind transfer programmes, which are usually targeted based on income and often include conditionalities. While such programmes can be effective in some circumstances, their success often hinges on the broader context and, crucially, on complementary economic and social policies.

In countries with high levels of poverty, she explained, targeting programmes on the basis of income can be problematic. It usually entails high administrative costs, significant errors of inclusion and exclusion, and substantial undercoverage, while potentially stigmatizing beneficiaries. Targeting through conditionalities attached to the provision of benefits may also have adverse effects. For example, they may require beneficiaries to perform verifiable actions to secure basic investments in children’s education and health. They often involve erroneous and troubling assumptions about the causes of poverty and the behavioural choices of individuals and families. And the costs of compliance with conditionalities may be high, particularly for women.

Citing UNRISD research on countries that had successfully reduced poverty and inequality, Cook noted that countries emphasizing narrowly targeted interventions had tended to be less effective in reducing poverty. Those countries that successfully reduced income poverty and improved social conditions did so through comprehensive social policy measures integrated into broad social and economic development strategies.

By contrast, narrowly targeted interventions tended to result in fragmented social policy systems with significant gaps in coverage, high administrative costs, and limited impact on poverty and inequality. As an alternative, Cook argued for a universal approach to social protection—one that aims at comprehensive coverage which protects all citizens and residents against serious livelihood shocks as a right. Only through claimable entitlements in the event of need, avoiding complex mechanisms of targeting, can the goal of universal social protection be achieved.

In her final remarks, Cook cited the following conclusions from UNRISD research: 1) the extension of social protection cannot be separated from the creation of a sustainable and employment-intensive growth path; 2) social assistance programmes must be designed as one component of a long-term and comprehensive social protection strategy; 3) the provision of basic services, including those that relieve the burden of care work which falls particularly on women, is a critical element of such a strategy; 4) political arrangements, strategic alliances and social dialogue can be used to build a national consensus for universal programmes, achieving buy-in from groups with political influence and the ability to pay.

“Where poverty and deprivation are widespread”, she said, “narrowly targeted social protection interventions rarely make significant inroads into poverty. Typically, a fall in poverty has less to do with programmes aimed at poverty per se than those aimed at wider social objectives, including employment creation, equity and solidarity”. This insight is particularly relevant during times of crisis, when social policies play a crucial role both in alleviating immediate impacts and in building resilience for the future.