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Universal Child Benefits and the need for disability- and equity-sensitive social protection


Alexandra Barrantes highlights her take-aways on disability and dignity from the recent Universal Child Benefits conference in Geneva. 

A couple of weeks ago, UNICEF and the ILO gathered together a large group of international experts, practitioners and government officials to discuss Universal Child Benefits (UCBs). The issue prompting the discussions was the compelling the case for UCBs and for universal social protection in general. Although countries around the world have seen advances in increasing the coverage of social protection schemes, significant coverage gaps remain, among children in particular. A report, which was launched at the event by UNICEF and the ILO, points out that only 35% of children globally receive social protection benefits. 

Although the ILO’s and UNICEF’s new study does not provide one overall definition of universal social protection (read my colleague’s blog here for more on this particular debate!), it does refer to the universal human rights framework and the fact that the right to social protection applies to everyone at every stage of life. Given this understanding of social protection as a right and entitlement, states must ensure that the design and implementation of social protection schemes be inclusive along the lifecycle. As several presenters stressed during the event, we should move away from the beneficiaries versus citizen dichotomy  (see more on the citizenship versus charity approaches here) and look at social protection beyond poverty reduction. Instead, we should focus on investing in universal social protection policies for all citizens, so as to make sure we leave no one behind. 

 In short, we need to look at the evidence to see who we is at greatest risk of being left behind. To do this, I’m going to delve into two UCB conference parallel sessions: one on children with disabilities, and the other on dignity and shame.  

A call for child disability benefits 

When discussing UCBs, we cannot leave children with disabilities as an afterthought. Development Pathways organised a parallel session on this key issue during the conference, showcasing the need for a universal child disability benefit to complement universal child benefits. Why? Simply because children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable children and their families face considerable additional costs as a result of their disability. Including them only within a universal child benefit system is inadequate, since there is a need for additional child disability and caregiver benefits.  

During the session, we heard a resounding call for action on child disability benefits. We learned about the situation of children with severe disabilities in Rwanda – with voices from community members and the examples of child disability benefits in both Uzbekistan and Nepal. The panel focused on both the linkages between poverty and disability (you can find more evidence on social protection and disability here and, very soon, we will be sharing a comprehensive study on the topic), the additional costs incurred for families caring for children with disabilities, the major constraints and obstacles families with children with disabilities face in accessing social protection schemes, and the invisibility in published data of the plight of children with disabilities. In addition, the evidence shows that children with disabilities are more prone to suffer from discrimination, exclusion, violence, stigma, abuse and neglect.  

The seminar shed light on ways forward. Country experiences show that there are policy options when it comes to addressing some of these difficulties and injustices. Nepal shared its experience in designing an architecture for disability inclusive policies, in particular its disability benefits and the Governments’ commitment towards accelerating the expansion of universal child benefits. In the case of Uzbekistan, a country that is investing in an inclusive lifecycle social protection system, we heard about the design and implementation of the Child Disability Benefit. It has seen significant advances in covering families with children with disabilities, and the Government is looking into shifting from disability assessments using a purely medical model to a bio-psycho-social one; it is also taking measures to resolve administrative inefficiencies that still undermine accessibility for some children with disabilities.   

The message that came across is clear: investing in children with disabilities is the right thing to do, and certainly an investment worth making. As Stephen Kidd mentioned, for only 0.1 per cent of GDP, most countries could establish universal Child Disability Benefits: the fiscal space exists in all countries, but what is lacking is the political will. There is a need for equitable benefits, in other words disability child benefits in addition to UCBs. In moving the UCB agenda forward, there is an urgent cry for investing in lifecycle disability-sensitive social protection policies. 

Dignity should be at the core of social protection 

In pursuit of the goal of not leaving anyone behind in social protection, the question of dignity needs to be treated as a central tenet and not as a mere afterthought. What came across strongly in the discussions held at the UCB Conference (in particular in one parallel session) was the need to shame-proof social protection and put dignity at the centre of policy design and implementation.  

Robert Walker rightly pointed out that policy framing has an impact on the dignity of people; depending on how tax-financed social security schemes are shaped, they can reinforce a community’s view of who is deserving and non-deserving of receiving benefits. Likewise, Frank Otchere referred to evidence from low- and middle-income countries on how the design of tax-financed social security schemes can have implications for dignity. In particular, issues around how the errors generated by poverty targeting and the design of cash transfer operations (such as in the mode of payments, communications or overall administration) might undermine the dignity of programme beneficiaries. An interesting point raised during the open discussion addressed how certain features of these targeted and/or conditional social protection programmes were driven by weaknesses in their capacity to generate solidarity. And ultimately, some of the features imposed by certain social protection programmes lead to a lack of social cohesion in societies. 

Having been in many social protection gatherings over the years, it is the first time that I have seen a more generalised discussion around the pitfalls of conditionalities, sanctions and poverty targeting which can undermine more inclusive and universal approaches to social protection.  Without demonising poverty targeting and conditionalities, several of the discussants (beyond the parallel session on dignity) argued that evidence suggests that conditionalities are not the way forward (for example see an excellent book by Tara Patricia Cookson on the issue around the conditionalities and shadow conditions women beneficiaries are being subjected to in the  conditional cash transfer programme in Peru, namely Juntos). Further, we should, as a global community, be very concerned with the exclusion errors resulting from poverty targeting (see initial results here). Several voices throughout the conference seemed to concur that conditionalities and sanctions (as used in many poor relief programmes) need to disappear. We also need to move away from the label ‘the poor’ and from stereotypes and myths around dependency, deservingness and how people living on low incomes use transfers (see a previous blog on this here). 

Henceforth, we need to shame-proof social protection and put dignity at the centre of policy design and implementation. To do so, we should move away from thinking only about poverty-reduction when discussing social protection and, instead, refer to universal and entitlement-based social protection policies so that shame and stigma is removed from the discourse.  

If the UCB agenda is to move forward, we need to examine: the evidence around exclusion errors of existing social protection programmes; the pitfalls of sanctions and conditionalities which impact on the dignity of some of the most vulnerable sectors of society; accessibility challenges and discrimination against some groups within society (for example families and children with disabilities); and we need to push for dignity- and equity-sensitive social protection systems across the lifecycle. Universal social protection (including universal child benefits) is for everyone and, if delivered, will help build social cohesion, which is particularly important in today’s world which seems increasingly divided. 

Keep up-to-date, register for our event on the release of a new global review of the effectiveness of targeting by clicking here.


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