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What a bunch of oxymorons in international social protection!


Nicholas Freeland

Let me begin by clarifying that an oxymoron is not some kind of bovine nincompoop. An oxymoron defines a phrase that is inherently self-contradictory. The word itself is a good example, deriving as it does from two contradictory Greek words: ὀξύς (oxys), which means sharp or clever, and μῶρος (moros), which means slow or foolish (as in our modern-day “moron”).

Modern usage of the English language is peppered with examples of oxymorons, such as “same difference,” “awfully good”, “deafening silence”, “painfully beautiful”, “open secret”, “oddly normal”, “old news” or “bittersweet”. There are also some splendid examples from the literature, such as Lamb’s “[a smuggler] is the only honest thief”, Shakespeare’s “parting is such sweet sorrow”, Andy Warhol’s “I am a deeply superficial person”, or Tennyson’s double-whammy of “faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”.

Another strand of so-called rhetorical oxymorons can be interpreted more cynically: these would include “Government organisation”, “American history”, “military intelligence” and “Microsoft Works” (or perhaps “public works”). Some might add “Merry Christmas” and “happily married” to this list!).

Unfortunately, the kind of social protection that is commonly peddled by international practitioners is similarly riddled with oxymorons. Some have been around for a while:

  • Productive safety nets” – such safety nets, traditionally in the form of enforced public works programmes, are not the slightest bit productive when they compel malnourished women to abandon their children to toil for a meagre wage that barely compensates the energy they have to expend.
  • Conditional social protection” – social protection is not social protection if it can be arbitrarily retracted as a result of a failure to comply with conditions, thereby throwing families into extreme poverty.
  • Graduation from poverty” – a bizarre concept that suggests people can definitively emerge from poverty, as if with a university degree, and no longer require access to social protection.

Probably the most enduring example of an oxymoron in the social protection lexicon is the concept of “poverty-targeting”, which Stephen Kidd has highlighted in a couple of recent blogs (see here and here). This is inherently self-contradictory at two levels. First, it is linguistically conflictual, apposing a verb that implies high precision (“to target”) to a concept that is totally amorphous (“poverty”). You can no more “target poverty” than you can “measure clouds” or “match waves”. Second it is conceptually deceitful, because – as Stephen has pointed out – it is actually a smokescreen to disguise the fact that its primary objective is to diminish expenditure on social protection, to the detriment of those living in “poverty” who it is ostensibly “targeting”.

Now a new example seems to be creeping into the lexicon: “progressive universalism” – see for example the 2019 World Development Report, which states: “A guiding principle for strengthening social assistance is progressive universalism.” This is slightly moronic, as well as oxymoronic, because “universalism” is usually reserved for the belief, in Christian theology, that all humankind will ultimately be saved through divine grace. Rather than “universalism”, the more common term for something that is “shared by all people or things in the world or in a particular group” is “universality”. But, in either case, the crucial defining component of something that is “universal” is that it is shared by all. It cannot therefore be progressive, which implies that – at least for some time – it will only be shared by some. “Progressive universality” (as it should be) is a bit like talking about “partial infinity”, “the larger half”, “slightly unique” or “nearly whole”. There is a danger that advocates of such “progressive universality” in social protection do not actually want to “progress” at all: they want to continue with their minimalist poverty-targeted approaches, while paying token lip-service to the concept of “universality” that they have in fact signed up to.

The idiot savants who practice such verbal dexterity are clearly confused, so, before this gets us into another fine mess, we should all agree to stand down from the use of oxymorons in social protection.

Happy New Year…and let us universally resolve not to make that oxymoronic for those in need of effective social protection!

Nicholas Freeland is an independent consultant with over forty years’ professional experience in social protection, food security, and poverty reduction.


  • Dear Mr. Nicholas Freeland,

    You see progressive universality as a problem. Let my try to make clear the simple solution for social protection that is mentioned in the World Development Report 2019: the Universal Basic Income (UBI).

    As written on page 109 of the report, the UBI will build a guaranteed social minimum by 3 design features:
    • The program is aimed at every individual, independent of income or employment status;
    • Participants do not have to fulfill any conditions or reciprocal co-responsibilities;
    • Assistance is provided in the form of cash instead of in-kind transfers and services.

    In my vision it could be completed by a flat taks of for instance 40% on income plus 30% on income above modal.

    I think a UBI is the most effective weapon against inequality!

    Yours truly,
    Joop Böhm.


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