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The golden rule, applied to social protection


Alexandra Barrantes

One of my favourite books to read out loud to my children at bedtime is The Golden Rule. It lays out, in very simple terms, the ideal that we should all “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

But as this is not a children’s literature review blog, let me switch to why I believe this same golden rule is a crucial foundation of the work that we do in international social policy, in particular within the social protection field in which I work.

For individuals and organisations advising governments and/or agencies in the design of social protection policies, the idea of treating people (programme recipients and applicants) as we would like to be treated ourselves seems pretty obvious to me. But why do we still have so many social protection schemes that treat “the poor” and “vulnerable” as if they were somehow different from the rest of us? By doing so, these programmes put at risk the dignity of those who they are meant to support.

The reasoning is very simple once we understand that there are very different approaches to social protection which can be viewed, simply, as two opposing models, or paradigms:

  • In one, the ‘golden rule’ is applied in the design of social protection policies or systems so that, if circumstances were such that we found ourselves in need at some point in our lifetime, we would feel comfortable in accessing the scheme since it would be based on pillars of dignity and solidarity;
  • The other paradigm does not follow the ‘golden rule’ but gives more weight to issues such as the “rational” use of resources and offers low cost programmes targeted at the poorest, often imposing sanctions and, because service users aren’t trusted, prioritise ensuring that they do not game the system.

Although this overt simplification might not take into account all the arguments and justifications behind the various types of advice provided in the design of policies and systems in low- or middle-income countries, it does highlight a key issue: what kind of policies and systems do we prioritise? And would we, as citizens, be comfortable accessing the programmes or would we think twice about doing so? The problem with the second paradigm is that, as Amartya Sen has rightly pointed out, social protection programmes targeted at the poorest tend to be poor quality benefits and not ones that ‘we’ would want to have to rely on.

Individuals at all ages across the lifecycle are vulnerable to shocks and exposed to less fortunate circumstances at some stage or another; from a rights approach, everyone is entitled to have access to programmes and services to address those shocks and vulnerabilities in a way that respects their dignity.

So, how do some of the currently applied social protection and poverty reduction recipes fare with regard to this key ‘golden rule’?

Technocratic solutions, narratives and the golden rule

 All technical/technocratic decisions or recommendations on social protection have human rights and political implications. Hence, neutral solutions do not exist.  When as individuals and/or organizations we provide technical advice on social protection policy or programming within low and middle-income countries, we need to give serious thought to the fact that at, the implementation stage, the policies and programmes that we are recommending are not just abstract constructs, but will impact heavily on the lives of actual people.

By following the second ‘non-golden rule’ model we risk giving social protection policy advice based on the idea of providing minimal benefits to prevent people choosing  benefits over work and to ration “scarce resources” in the context of low- and middle-income countries. We might also incentive policies that lead to policing eligibility and “deservingness”, that seek to avoid “double-dipping” of benefits, and  that impose sanctions in service delivery. This of course will have a clear impact on the design and implementation of social protection policies (as in the figure below).

What kind of an impact do the ‘non-golden rule’ schemes have? The imposition of sanctions and conditions might lead to discrimination, humiliation  and a lack of respect for privacy (such as naming and shaming, public lists of beneficiaries in  communities), the stigmatisation of recipients,  humiliating and punitive welfare fraud campaigns, or un-dignified service delivery as people are treated as the, often undeserving, objects of charity.

There has always been labelling around ‘the poor’,  stigmatization around the receipt of social welfare for the ‘poor,’ and debates around so called temptation goods . Misconceptions around scarce resources, and the need to target the poorest of the poorest or the “deserving poor” comes to the centre of national and international policy debates as a result.

Significant strides have been made in addressing poverty worldwide, in particular when it comes to measuring poverty beyond income indicators, and also in understanding the phenomenon from different approaches. Nevertheless, it seems ludicrous that we have still not been able to move away from existing myths and negative narratives around poverty. Busting some of those myths with evidence and normative frameworks is crucial in gaining a better understanding of how to design social protection.

So, what would a ‘golden rule’ social protection system look like?

An inclusive lifecycle social protection system requires governments to base their policy design and programme implementation on human rights principles and build national legal and regulatory frameworks that acknowledge the right to social protection and the right to an adequate standard of living. The design of the system and the underlying policies needs to be constructed on principles of dignity and be implemented using these standards throughout the whole process. In other words, they would be programmes that we would all want whenever we are in need.

Linked to this premise is the core understanding that if governments fail to follow the ‘golden rule,’ and base their social protection provision on negative narratives around poverty and the “deserving and undeserving poor”, thus fragmenting service delivery systems based on different audiences (services for the poorest, the non-poor, etc.), they are bound to fail in their endeavour to comply with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and “leave no one behind.” Leaving no one behind can only be achieved by committing to respecting the inherent dignity of every human being.

The golden rule for social protection policy advice should be just that: respect for the dignity of every individual. Dignity is defined as the state or quality of being worthy of honour and respect and feeling that one’s own worth is an important part of belonging to society.  This is ultimately the kind of social protection policies we want to see in the countries we live in and the countries we work for.


  • Great insights – what we need to sort out is economic development and incomes especially in the developing countries. I agree Golden Rule is the way to go but resources must be generated that give dignity to all, especially in the context of SDGs. One option is to have effective cross-subsidy and use a socialist approach that encourage public access as opposed to private access. This will force leadership of countries to ensure that public social protection facilities are good for all since they too would have to consume from the same source – neo-liberal market economists will dismiss this as a dream, but it is doable if leadership is committed to grow the economy and distribute the proceeds equitably.


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