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The vaccine against poverty, inequality and insecurity needs a stronger prescription

17/02/2021

Photo credit: Daniel Schludi/ Unsplash

By Michael Cichon

We all know, that during, but primarily in “normal” times, well-functioning, rationally designed and financed social protection systems are powerful vaccines against the worst social fall-out of four of the main – largely self-inflicted – plagues of human societies, i.e. poverty, inequality, insecurity and avoidable ill-health.  It has been shown time and again[1] that at least a minimum level of universal social protection is affordable in all countries except probably a dozen or so of the poorest that would require temporary international help.

During the last almost 12 months now, we all have heard and read manifold declarations of political support for social protection and in particular its pivotal role during national and global crises. And indeed, the response of national social protection systems to the crisis was impressive. The ILO social protection responses to COVID-19 monitor[2] counted almost 1600 social protection measures in 93% of all countries in response to COVID-19. We have also heard and learned that countries with a vaccine in place are better equipped to deal with a crisis than countries who have to resort to ad hoc and often untested treatment when the crisis actually occurs. The COVID crisis is an opportunity to make the recognition of the role of social protection more permanent, and there is an almost unique opportunity to achieve this.  

This June it will be 10 years since the ILO’s 100th International Labour Conference (ILC) held a general discussion on social security. Still, under the dark shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, the 100th ILC in 2011 decided to request the ILO to develop a Recommendation on Social Protection Floors (SPFs). Just a year later Recommendation R. 202 concerning national floors of social protection was unanimously adopted by tripartite delegations from all 187 ILO member states (except for Panama, who abstained).  The concept of the social protection floor originated from the work of a Joint UN Crisis Initiative that the ILO and WHO co-chaired since 2009. This June, the 110th ILC will review the ILO’s work on social protection in another general discussion. This is the time when the international community should commission the development of a stronger instrument of international law on universal social protection. 

ILO R.202 has succeeded to raise the awareness of the role and affordability of social protection in most countries and everywhere on the global level, but it remains – as the name says – a recommendation to all ILO member states to adhere to the concept, principles and strategy. R.202 provides guidance to all member states to introduce social protection floors for all residents on the basis of a set of principles and to increase the level of protection as soon as possible on the basis of national social protection strategies that are formulated through national social dialogues. 

However, as Recommendation R.202 cannot be ratified by countries, its content thus does not become binding national law. Member states are not obliged to directly include its contents and principles into national legislation. A recommendation can easily be shelved and forgotten. Sadly that happened, inter alia, to the path-breaking ILO Recommendations R.67 and 69 on income security and medical care of 1944 – formulated amidst the biggest global political crisis of the 20th century – which de facto established the principle of universal social protection, sixty-eight years before R 202. That principle was subsequently enshrined in Articles 22 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights then conveniently forgotten in mainstream development policy debates. R.67 and 69 are fascinating historical reading, actually. 

A powerful vaccine against the four plagues, or at least the worst forms of the four plagues, needs a stronger prescription than a Recommendation.  It also needs a stronger prescription than a passing mentioning in transient international development goals (such as in target 1.3 of the SDGs) which come and go. If we had a convention on the Social Protection Floor, and hence a concrete commitment to universal social protection, trade unions, civil society, religious groups and other interest groups could concretely demand from every government of an ILO member state that it ratifies that convention. A globally adopted convention is a powerful benchmark for the formulation of national policy demands and a policy shield the groups that voice them.   

The process of increasing the number of national ratifications could be slow but the instrument would not lose its normative power for a long time. The still increasing number of ratifications of ILO Convention C.102 on minimum standards of social security of 1952 (which defines minimum benefit standards but does not yet require universal protection) shows that even almost 70 years after its adoption the convention is still relevant (even if the wording of the instrument probably by now would merit updating). For example, it took years, if not decades of dialogue between the government and social partners of the Russian Federation, till the country finally adopted the Convention in 2019.  What other legal tools than international conventions do we have had to maintain social protection dialogues and discussions with governments? Notably, those who may not be as open to dialogue with civil society and other interest groups as one would wish?  

The process to prepare a ratification on the national level can likewise take years of concrete analytical and legal work, as social protection needs and gaps have to be identified,  solutions developed and costed, laws need to be reviewed and necessary changes negotiated during that process.  One of the positive side effects would be that the often merely political and ideological obstacles to the closure of social protection gaps would become apparent. The process is perhaps as important as the outcome.  An additional value should be that the Global Fund for Social Protection which is demanded and promoted by the Global Coalition for the Social Protection Floors[3], that is supposed to support the few countries who cannot afford to finance an effective universal SP system at early stages of their economic development, would have a clear contractual basis for its support. The Fund could support countries who would commit through the ratification of the convention to provide at least a minimum level of Social Protection to all residents and to a timetable for achieving higher levels of protection as soon as possible. 

Most champions of social protection at the national and international level have very few instruments at their disposal to trigger positive developments in social protection. Standards of good, globally accepted and negotiated practice – and that is what ILO conventions are in effect – are one such instrument – as old fashioned as that may sound.  After years of often sobering experience with advisory services in social protection, we know that decision making processes on the national level can be influenced prominently by monetary incentives or disincentives (as the case may well be and which can be applied primarily by the International Finacial Institutions) to adopt certain policies or by standards and examples of good practice that are globally accepted and practised. Since we, i.e. civil society and UN agencies, generally do not have the money to speed up processes, we should not give the next most powerful instrument to support national Social Protection development processes away easily.   

After the adoption of a convention all national social protection policies would also be subject to the ILO supervisory mechanism, which would require all ILO member states at regular intervals to report on why they either cannot ratify the convention or in which way they comply with the convention.  While the supervisory machine may not have as many teeth as one would wish, it still would ascertain that universal social protection would remain on the national “front burner”, i.e. that it would not easily drop of the development agenda completely during the years and decades to come.

When, if not now, should we all request our national delegations to the International Labour Conference to demand the development of a Convention on National Social Protection Floors, 10 years after the international community – in the face of another crisis – has demanded a Recommendation on the same subject?  All it takes is to formulate a convention that requires ILO members to adhere to the content of R. 202 and seek to ratify up-to-date higher level ILO conventions according to a societally agreed timetable.  Even in the heavy language of international law that should not take much more than a page or two. 

And again – at a time when the world is in the grip of another global crisis – it would be sad to miss the opportunity to set new standards and levels of good practice for the time after the crisis.  It would be sad to let the global society and its almost 8 billion people stumble into the next global, regional, national, local or the myriad of daily individual crises without a clear prescription for a powerful vaccine against their worst social, economic and health effects. 

[1] See inter alia FES.2019. From international ivory towers to national realities: The challenge of creating national social dialogues for social protection floors 2019, FES, Berlin 2019, chapters 2 and 3.
[2] See https://www.social-protection.org/gimi/ShowWiki.action?id=3417
[3] See Global Coalition for SP Floors. 2020. Civil Society Call for a Global Fund for Social Protection to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and to build a better future, at: http://www.socialprotectionfloorscoalition.org/civil-society-call/. The Fund was also proposed by M. Sepulveda and O. de Schutter in 2012 (see https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Food/20121009_GFSP_en.pdf) and a similar but crowdfunded proposal (a global Social Trust Fund) was already pilot-tested by the ILO by the ILO after 2002 (see http://www.ilo.int/moscow/news/WCMS_244667/lang–en/index.htm).
[4] The views expressed here are private and do not necessarily reflect policy positions of the ICSW.

Our blogger, Michael Cichon, is a Fellow and past President of the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW)[4]

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