1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development

Strengthening Social Protection in Six Asian Countries

  • Project from: 2013 to 2013


Background and context


UNRISD was approached by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in 2013 to prepare a synthesis report of commissioned country case studies on expanding social protection as a contribution to the ESCAP project Strengthening Social Protection. The objectives of the project include the documentation of national-level initiatives and innovations in social security schemes for the purposes of advancing knowledge and sharing experiences, making this request for collaboration highly relevant to UNRISD’s own research agenda.

Based on case studies in six Asian countries—China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam—the synthesis report examines the design and implementation of social protection programmes with a focus on three major challenges for extending coverage in developing countries: (i) informality, and access of informal workers and their families to social protection and services; (ii) scaling up cash transfers as a major social policy response to overcome poverty; and (iii) the inclusion of migrant workers in social protection schemes.

Research highlights


The synthesis report, which was submitted to ESCAP in December 2013, identifies various institutional configurations for social protection and seeks to explain how they impact each other. It asks how the case countries tried to overcome redundancies and inefficiencies in social protection, and how complementarity of institutions both old and new can maximize synergies for social protection. The report, which draws on UNRISD’s 2010 flagship report Combating Poverty and Inequality, highlights the importance of supply-side investment in social service provision, the complementary relationship between cash transfers and labour market policies, and coordination and harmonization among social protection schemes, administrative units, and macro- and meso-level policies. Key findings include the following.

The two different social protection approaches of India and Thailand have produced significantly different policy impacts in terms of protection of informal workers. The Indian system can be characterized as a fragmented system. Weak information and registration systems as well as shortfalls in investment in social service infrastructure exacerbate the problems of fragmentation. Thailand’s universal health coverage demonstrates the clear advantage of universal social protection schemes in contexts where informal workers are abundant. The investment in infrastructure of health care delivery in both urban and rural areas prior to the launch of 30 bhat health insurance has been highlighted as a successful expansion of health care coverage.

A residence-based registration system which restricts the portability of the entitlement to social protection schemes, in particular health care, is one of the major obstacles to expanding social service coverage to migrant workers, as pointed out in the Chinese and Vietnamese cases. Problems of residence-based systems governing social security entitlements of migrant workers in different contexts show the importance of complementarity of institutions and policies.

Political will is needed to improve social protection for the poor, but political will based on elections can be a source of adverse selection as shown by the examination of cash transfer programmes in the Philippines and Indonesia. Various types of inclusion and exclusion errors have been identified, illustrating the problematic nature of a targeting approach. Cash transfers, in particular targeting schemes, do not significantly contribute to the achievement of universal social protection unless they successfully elevate the poor to the level sufficient to sustain their engagement in employment, productive activities and growth processes in a relatively equal manner with other income groups. Complementary institutions in other dimensions are necessary, particularly labour market policies and skill training. The absence of attention to secondary schools in most cash transfer programmes in Indonesia and the Philippines is a serious missing link in building complementary institutional arrangements for social protection.

Given that the project is a part of ESCAP’s initiative to establish policy tools for social protection, the report also emphasizes the context-specific factors—such as systems of production, and socio-cultural and political institutions—which must be taken into account when seeking to extract and apply policy lessons from one place to another. It highlights that individual social protection programmes must be considered within the broader development context; and that the sustainability of these countries’ social and economic development is dependent upon complementarity in existing institutions.

This work was commissioned by UN-ESCAP.