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The pleonasm of shock-responsive social protection


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Three Christmases ago, I wrote a blog post about all the oxymorons involved in social protection! I refrained from naming names, but I provided a number of examples of commonly used phrases that were oxymoronic. An oxymoron, as a reminder, is a phrase that is inherently self-contradictory: “deafening silence”, “painfully beautiful”, “open secret”, to name but a few. In social protection, we happily talk about “productive safety nets”, “conditional social protection”, “graduation from poverty”, “poverty-targeting” and “progressive universalism”, which are all examples of oxymorons, for reasons that I explain in the earlier blog.

Today, as Christmas again approaches, I turn my attention to the use of another literary device in social protection: the pleonasm. The word pleonasm, like oxymoron, has Greek origins: it comes from the Greek word πλεονασμός (pleonasmos), which means “excess”. A pleonasm is a linguistic redundancy, where part of the phrase adds nothing to the sense. As with oxymorons, there are many examples of pleonasms in common parlance: “advance planning”; “close proximity”; “free gift”; “false pretences”; and so on. There are also some fine examples in literature: Shakespeare’s “This was the most unkindest cut of all”; or Isabel Allende’s “These terrible things I have seen with my own eyes, and I have heard with my own ears, and touched with my own hands”.

“Shock-responsive social protection” is a pleonasm. If social protection is not shock-responsive, then it is not social protection. By any definition, social protection is there to respond to shocks, whether they be life-course vulnerabilities (being born; growing old; becoming disabled), individual misfortunes (loss of livelihood; illness or injury; death of a family member), or extensive crises (natural disasters; climate change; conflicts; pandemics).

I challenge you to find a definition of social protection that does not include the notion of it responding to shocks and vulnerabilities. From the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s “Social protection refers to policies and actions which…enable [people] to better manage risks and shocks”, through the International Monetary Fund’s “Social protection…aims at protecting households from shocks” and the European Union’s description that it “enhance[s] the capacity of all people…[to] better manage risks and shocks”, to the World Food Programme’s text that says it “consists of policies and programmes designed to protect people from shocks and stresses throughout their lives” and Australian Aid with their “prevention against income shocks and drops in well-being”: all include this essential element. Therefore, there is no need to add the tautological descriptor “shock-responsive” to the term “social protection”: it is redundant.

Yet “shock-responsive social protection” is the flavour of the month. Everybody’s doing it! Why might that be? Please allow me a bit of pre-Yuletide speculation. I suspect that there are at least three under-currents at play, all of which have been accelerated by the impact of COVID-19.

Humanitarians leaping on the social protection bandwagon – Humanitarian actors see this as a key entry point to broader social protection, a Trojan horse to jump the so-called “nexus” between humanitarian and development assistance. Such actors have a clear mandate for emergencies, so if social protection needs an explicit shock response component, then who better than they to provide it? There is an understandable, even existential, imperative of self-preservation here. As national governments increasingly recognise the value of delivering comprehensive, inclusive protection against life-course vulnerabilities, so the resilience of the population will increase, the need for ad hoc emergency response will diminish and the importance of non-government players in its implementation will reduce.

Academia grabbing at a new plaything –Institutes, researchers, consultants and the like are only too delighted to have a new subject to dissect, a new expertise to vaunt, a new topic for webinars, a new module to add to their training courses. The literature has been filled with learned volumes on shock-responsive social protection, building new frameworks that involve excitingly arcane concepts such as “shadow alignment”, “piggybacking” and “design tweaking”. COVID-19 has clearly shown the need for “horizontal” and “vertical” expansion, it is true. But good social protection should provide that anyway: a mother gets a higher benefit when a new child is born; more people receive unemployment benefit during depressions or lockdowns; and the coverage of a social pension will increase as a country’s population ages.

Poverty-targeters throwing their toys out of the pram – The third strand is that previous advocates of restricted poverty-targeted “safety nets” (which they have hitherto been disingenuously calling “social protection”), have been rudely alerted to the reality that what they are offering is not social protection. COVID-19 has cruelly revealed the weakness of discretionary programmes with limited coverage, restricted systems, weak political traction and inadequate domestic financial support. But rather than admit this, such players would prefer to imply that the problem lies not with their model of social protection, but rather with the fact that it is not “shock-responsive” enough. However, the problem with poverty-targeted safety nets is not that they are not shock-responsive, but that they are not social protection.

You have probably heard me say something like this before, with your own ears, or read it with your own eyes; and you are pensively thinking in your minds that “this is Groundhog Day, déjà vu – all over again!”. And you would be absolutely bang-on right and correct. But let’s not veer waywardly off course and get distractedly preoccupied with shock-responsive social protection. Let’s rather focus on what really matters: socially protective social protection that does what it is meant to do (which includes delivering the best possible response to shocks!).

Happy Christmas!

This blog is written by Nicholas Freeland, an independent consultant in food security, poverty reduction and social protection.