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Protecting the Right of Access to Social Security Benefits

15 Apr 2014

Protecting the Right of Access to Social Security Benefits
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD resource platform for practitioners and policy makers Linking Social Protection and Human Rights. This part of the platform is a collection of expert contributions and commentary from advocates, practitioners, policy makers and academics sharing practical guidance and thought-provoking commentary on their experiences with a human rights approach to social protection. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

Stephen Kidd is a Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways.

Protecting the right of access to social security benefits

States must ensure the right to social security for all without discrimination of any kind. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and Article 26 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child oblige States Parties to take effective measures, within their maximum available resources, to fully realize this right. This does not mean that everyone should always be in receipt of social security; instead, it means that everyone should be able to access social security whenever they require it so as to be able to ensure the right to an adequate standard of living—including adequate food, clothing and housing—as set out in Article 9 of the ICESCR.

The right to social security must be understood within the context of the majority of people in many countries lacking income security and the obligation of states to strive towards the continuous improvement of living conditions (Article 9 of the ICESCR). Poverty lines are relatively arbitrary constructs and do not reflect the number of people without an adequate standard of living in any country. Incomes of individuals and households are volatile and can change over short periods (in particular as the result of shocks they experience).

To illustrate this point, Figure 1 indicates the distribution of consumption in Bangladesh from the household with the lowest consumption to the highest (in 2010). Across most households, it shows a relatively flat distribution, indicating that the difference between households is relatively small. So, as demonstrated by the poverty lines (in red), a slight shift in the poverty line can mean a significant rise in the poverty rate: for example, a 20% increase in the Basic Needs Poverty Line (BNPL) results in a 46% rise in the poverty rate. In reality, most families in developing countries—Bangladesh included—are in danger of falling under the poverty line and certainly do not enjoy an “adequate standard of living.” Indeed static categories such as “the poorest of the poor” are best understood as imaginary constructs and unhelpful in designing social security schemes.

Figure 1: Distribution of consumption in Bangladesh—in 2010—indicating different poverty lines

Source: Kidd, S. and B. Khondker. 2013. "Scoping Report on Poverty and Social Protection in Bangladesh." Unpublished manuscript; also reproduced in Charles Knox-Vydmanov. 2014. "Why ‘The Poor’ Don’t Exist." Pathways’ Perspectives 16, Development Pathways, London.

The easiest means of ensuring the right to social security is through universal coverage (and adequate transfer values). If schemes are accessible by everyone, the exclusion of people without an adequate standard of living is necessarily minimized. Therefore, many states provide social security schemes on the basis of universal coverage. For example, many of the largest social security schemes in developing countries are old age pensions with access provided to all older people.

The targeting trade-off

If countries are—due to resource limitations—unable to provide universal coverage, they must ensure that they have plans for progressively expanding their social security system and, when schemes are “targeted” at a minority of the eligible category—usually those with the lowest incomes—mechanisms must be established to ensure that people can access them whenever they require and they fulfil the eligibility criteria. There is, therefore, implicitly a trade-off. If countries decide to reduce coverage, they must increase administrative costs to ensure that those fulfilling the criteria can access schemes immediately.

Ensuring immediate access of those who fulfil eligibility criteria is challenging and requires specific measures to be taken. If countries decide to target those with the lowest incomes, they must, for example:
  • Establish effective communications strategies. These should ensure that everyone knows about a scheme, its eligibility criteria and the means of accessing it. Communications should be in all languages used by potential recipients and should be accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Invest in selection mechanisms that—to the extent possible—do not overestimate incomes of any applicant. Selection mechanisms with high design errors challenge a human rights approach. For example, many developing countries use the proxy means test methodology to save on administrative costs. Yet, it has significant design errors and consistently over-estimates incomes of many applicants: when targeted at those on the lowest incomes, design exclusion errors are at least 50%. When priority is given to cost-saving in both coverage and administration, a commitment to human rights is jeopardized. In contrast, some developing countries use unverified means tests and high eligibility (income) thresholds, thereby prioritizing the inclusion of applicants and significantly increasing the likelihood of applicants fulfilling eligibility criteria.
  • Avoid placing quotas on the number of people who can access a scheme. All those who fulfil the eligibility criteria must be able to access a scheme.
  • Ensure that people can apply for the scheme whenever they require it. When selection is undertaken infrequently—for example, every 3, 5 or 10 years—this denies the right of people to access social security when they need it. Countries should establish on-demand applications for schemes.
  • Decisions on selection must be as objective as possible. When decisions are placed in the hands of elites or community members, it is more likely that decisions will be subjective thereby increasing the likelihood of inaccurate decisions, while opening opportunities for some people to exercise potentially arbitrary power over others, in particular those who are most vulnerable.
  • Eliminate discrimination in decision making. Legislation and enforcement mechanisms must be established to ensure that all discrimination is tackled.
  • Keep comprehensive information on selection decisions. The rationale for decisions must be accurately and comprehensively documented so that, if required, applicants can access this information and be provided with a clear explanation for any decision. Community based targeting, for example, rarely provides comprehensive written information on the rationale for decisions taken.
  • Establish effective grievance mechanisms that enable applicants to appeal unfavourable decisions. Grievance mechanisms should be independent, easy to access, and social security schemes must comply with their decisions. Applicants should also have the right to obtain all information on their case while schemes should be fully transparent in the information they offer, for example on the targeting criteria. In schemes with complex eligibility criteria—such as the proxy means test—measures must be taken to explain the criteria in ways that can be easily understood by applicants.

States should ensure that the dignity and privacy of recipients is respected and that every effort is taken to minimize stigmatization of applicants and recipients. For example, schemes should avoid publicly naming those selected, for example by putting up lists of recipients or by encouraging potential recipients to be named in a public setting.

Given the high number of people in many countries without an “adequate standard of living”, it is critical that states adopt the principle of progressive realization of the right to social security, in line with their maximum available resources. They must take measures so that, over time and as resources increase, coverage of the national population expands, progressively including more of those facing income insecurity. Ensuring universal access should be the aim of all countries so that all people who require social security are able to access it.

    Stephen Kidd is a Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways and has worked on social security and social development in more than 25 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. He was previously Director of Policy at HelpAge International and a Senior Social Development Adviser at DFID, where he led the Social Protection and Equity and Rights policy teams and also worked on DFID’s China and Latin America programmes. He is a social anthropologist by training and was a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh for two years. During the 1980s and 1990s, he lived in Latin America for over 10 years, mainly supporting the rights of indigenous people.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.