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Lost in translation in social protection: rights and development


Those of us working on social protection have, most likely, interacted with both the human rights and international development worlds and noticed their somewhat different approaches to social protection.  While there is some overlap between the approaches, they often struggle to work collaboratively. We need to develop a shared language so that the nuts and bolts of the social protection agenda are not lost in translation, writes Alexandra Barrantes.

The two approaches are often not on the same page: one approach highlights the right to social security for everyone while the other promotes the benefits of targeted social assistance (in other words, poor relief); one refers to right-holders while the other talks about beneficiaries; and, one stresses human rights principles while the other focuses on cost-efficiency. As a result, the supporters of the two approaches do not appear to be on the same page, with shared meaning lost along the way.

Those committed to human rights are prone to promote inclusive social protection schemes that are accessible to all citizens and abide by human rights principles. In contrast, many of those from the development world often promote the idea of targeted policies on the grounds of ‘scarcity of resources.’

These differences in language and/or approaches have a significant impact on the design, implementation and evaluation of social protection policies and schemes. Those on the international development side, mostly look at the final outcomes, and the impact of programmes and policies on specific socio-economic indicators. Those on the human rights side of the agenda go further and examine the entire policymaking and implementation processes behind social security systems and schemes: are human rights principles taken into consideration and are right-holders exercising their right to social security?

Furthermore, in a recent address to human rights advocates, the current UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights pointed to the fact that the social protection agenda has a huge constituency, but not with a human rights approach. Hence, he stressed the need to bring a human rights dimension to the broader economic agenda.

In recent years, there have been significant advances in ensuring that economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs) are recognised, including the rights to social security and an adequate standard of living, as well as establishing mechanisms that can monitor progress. Nonetheless, in many countries progress in realising these rights is lagging behind and the links between human rights normative frameworks and development agencies’ strategies seem to be almost non-existent. Many countries are signatories to the main Conventions and Normative frameworks on ESCRs and there are existing mechanisms to monitor their progressive compliance. International agencies, however, mostly use different standards to assess progress in implementing social protection.

Compared to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have given much more attention to social protection. The 2030 Agenda recognises social protection as a key policy tool for achieving SDG1 on the eradication of income poverty, SDG5’s promotion of gender equality, and SDG10’s aim to reduce income inequality.  Nonetheless, there are questions about whether a human rights perspective is adequately incorporated in the language of the SDGs.

The UN Office of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, therefore,  has released several reports that stress the importance of addressing poverty as an urgent human rights concern and of a human rights perspective on social protection. Likewise, the ILO’s agenda has pursued the right to social security and, more recently, the Social Protection Floors Recommendation reaffirms the right to social security and stresses the importance of applying human rights principles in the implementation of the floors. UNRISD has also spearheaded very interesting research and practical approaches to linking both worlds. At the regional level, ECLAC has promoted the notion of universal social protection from a rights and life-cycle perspective.

Having been involved in the social protection world Rights vs Economicsfrom the standpoint of both international development and human rights, I am still astonished by comments such as: “We do not pursue socio-economic development issues from a rights-based approach, as that is not our institutional scope.” Or: “How can you measure social protection public policy accomplishments from a human rights perspective?” It is as if the agreed universal and regional periodic reporting mechanisms were non-existent and did not already include a wide range of tools and indicators to measure progress.

Moreover, the recent evaluation of The IMF and Social Protection released by the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is of concern. The report finds that IMF-World Bank collaborations, with their preferred approach of targeting the ‘poor,’ work well for these institutions, although it does not coincide with the rights-based approach of some UN agencies. Presumably, these development institutions will continue promoting targeted approaches in lending countries.

In addition, on many occasions the official discourse from those advancing a rights-based approach to social protection at the national level – as enshrined in some national frameworks – has not been translated into programme implementation (both for registration processes, enrolment, payment and complaints and grievances, among others). This gap between official discourse and the actual implementation of social protection programmes means that national social contracts between citizens as rights-holders and the Government are undermined.

Furthermore, the discussion on social protection goes beyond the purely technical approach that is mainly used in the international development arena when promoting social protection. It is also very much a political discussion in terms of government priorities and fiscal choices (lifecycle and universal versus targeted approaches), political feasibility and whether a government prioritises the right to social security over and above poor relief.

While I feel that we many times get lost in translation in social protection, there is obviously a great deal to be gained by bringing together the rights and international development approaches to advance the building of effective national social protection systems. Many institutions have already advanced on this front but there is still much cross-fertilisation and cross-translation to take place, so that economists, social protection practitioners, and policy makers can sit down with human rights lawyers and activists, as well as researchers, and make progress in discussing (and agreeing?) on potential responses to some of the core arguments.

While the challenge is great, I believe a human rights approach is a must if we are to attain inclusive social protection systems (in a future blog, I will delve further into this).





  • Excellent piece, Alex! We need much more cross-translation and cross-fertilization, as you mention, between economists, practitioners, human rights activitists and policy-makers on social protection. I was thinking, development practitioners seem to be more aligned (or concerned) with policy-making and, therefore, government cycles, while the human rights agenda goes above and beyond any particular government. Could this be part of the disconnect?


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