Social protection essential tool for reducing poverty, basic human right: UN's Bachelet
Universal social protection ensures that anyone who needs social protection can access it at any time.
Countries have been called on to develop their national social protection systems, which comprise basic, lifelong social security guarantees for all, for health care and income security.
A Call to Action to this effect was issued by members of the Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection (USP2030), who convened at a high-level conference at the International Labour Organization (ILO) headquarters on 5 February 2019. The Call to Action refers to earlier member State commitments, particularly to end poverty, undertaken within the Sustainable Development Agenda.
Universal social protection ensures that anyone who needs social protection can access it at any time. This includes child benefits, pensions for older persons and benefits for people of working age in case of maternity, disability, work injury or for those without jobs.
"The ILO Constitution teaches us that poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere. Social protection for anyone in need, at any age, helps ensure against that threat," said Deborah Greenfield, ILO Deputy Director-General.
Countries in many parts of the world have achieved universal coverage, such as Bolivia, Cabo Verde, Lesotho, Mongolia, Namibia, South Africa and Timor Leste. Mongolia, for instance, has been able to provide universal old age and disability pensions, as well as universal maternity and child benefits.
However, more than half of the global population (4 billion people) still has no access to even one social protection benefit. Forty-five per cent of the global population receives only one social protection benefit. Progress has been best in old-age pensions, with 68 per cent of older persons receiving a pension. However, child and family benefits are limited to one-third of the world's children: 1.3 billion children do not have social protection. The numbers worsen for persons with disabilities: only 28 per cent receive social protection benefits.
"Social protection is an essential tool for reducing poverty and a fundamental human right," said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. "Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this right protects persons in situations of vulnerability, including the elderly, unemployed, sick, injured or living with a disability and those in need of maternity care, so they can retain their fundamental dignity," she added.
In many countries, there are still large coverage gaps and inadequate benefits. One challenge, discussed by meeting participants, is the long-term willingness and capability of governments to invest in the expansion of social protection to all, including informal and gig economy workers and women who may work their whole lives but receive no pension.
"Universal social protection is critical: it raises household incomes, consumption and savings, boosting aggregate demand and enhances people's resilience in the face of shocks, such as those that may result from climate change and structural transformations coming, for example, from new technology affecting work," said Michal Rutkowski, Senior Director, Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice, World Bank.
Another challenge is how to secure sustainable and equitable financing for social protection. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), developing countries spend just 7 per cent of GDP on social protection whereas OECD countries spend nearly three times that.
"It's time to make universal social protection a reality. It's sound economic policy," said Isabel Ortiz, ILO Director of Social Protection. "To the question about how to finance universal provision," she added, "there is fiscal space to extend social protection even in the poorest countries, some of which have been using a number of alternative options supported by international organizations."
Universal social protection is achieved through national policies and programmes that provide equitable access to all people and protect them throughout their lives against poverty and risks to their livelihoods and well-being. This protection can be provided through a range of mechanisms, including via cash or in-kind benefits, contributory or non-contributory schemes, and programmes to enhance human capital, productive assets and access to jobs. The provision of a social protection floor for all people in developing countries costs as little as 1.6 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on average.
"There is a strong business case for social protection. We need to invest in it for development to occur and not wait for development to put it in place. Additional finance can be provided by the private sector, cash transfers and governments who fight tax evasion and avoidance," said Gabriela Ramos, Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa, OECD.
National action is required in five areas: protection throughout the life cycle; universal coverage; country-level ownership; sustainable and equitable financing, both domestic and international; and participation and social dialogue.
The Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection (USP2030) supports countries, accelerating progress in building their social protection systems. All countries are invited to join the partnership.