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Development Pathways webinar discussion argues human rights are fundamental to social protection responses to COVID-19 


Last week Development Pathways organised and hosted, in cooperation with UNICEF South Asia and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a webinar discussion on human rights considerations in response to COVID-19 that was the twenty-second of the “Social protection responses to COVID-19” webinar series organised by social  

The debate centred on how the COVID-19 global crisis has acutely exposed the need to refocus on human rights within social protection and make responses to the pandemic more focused on a human rights-based approach. This, the panellists suggested, is the result of human rights having taken a backseat in recent years in the development discourse, with more emphasis being placed on economic means such as growth”, “fiscal stimulus packages” and debt relief, amongst others. This has been compounded by the political economies of governments who have favoured social protection programmes and schemes based on a lack of investment, poor targeting, high exclusion errors and, the resulting, widespread stigmatisation of benefit claimants, the panellists also argued.  

The discussion was moderated by Shea McClanahanSenior Social Protection Specialist at Development Pathways, with contributions and arguments put forward by Abdul Alim, Social Policy Advisor at UNICEF South Asia, Alexandra Barrantes, Senior Social Protection Specialist at Development Pathways, and Simone Cecchini, Senior Social Affairs Officer at ECLAC.  

More broadly, the conversation focused on the potential to use the COVID-19 crisis to reshape and design the current social protection paradigm. Abdul Alim suggested that the pandemic has not only been an “economic crisis, but a crisis of economics” as he provided data and research pertaining to the emerging impact of COVID-19 in South Asian states. He also outlined the role that an improved social contract—between the state and the citizen—could have in creating better investments and more social cohesion regarding social protection.  

Alexandra Barrantes argued that in a time of greater uncertainty and vulnerability for many there is a need to “take the global pandemic as a time to rethink and reframe social protection responses”. She suggested governments should “avoid fragmenting service delivery programmes” and “focus on inclusive lifecycle social protection systems” that centre on process, and not just outcomes.  

She highlighted five key considerations human rights bring to the social protection response to COVID: human rights provide principles and standards that can be applied to social protection; given the current context of a global pandemic, the inclusivity of social protection systems becomes key (versus poverty targeted approaches); since individuals of all ages are rightsholders and vulnerable to shocks and risks of different types (including pandemics), governments need to ensure that people are covered throughout their lifecycle; due to the inclusive nature of universal lifecycle schemes, and the fact that they usually have larger coverage among a certain population, they are also a more shock-responsive and effective response to widespread shocks and risks; and rights-based approach allows us to look at the entire policy process instead of just the desired outcomes of social protection public policies.

Simone Cecchini suggested that whilst COVID-19 could ultimately result in the worst economic recession in living memory, it has already exposed structural problems, especially within social protection and health care systems, increased poverty and made millions more people vulnerable. He argued however, through analysis of Latin American countries, that the introduction of more expansive social protection programmes would allow countries to strengthen their welfare states and reverse these trends.   

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the reality that whilst everyone is vulnerable to life’s “shocks” and “risks”; those on lower incomes and/or with existing health issues are even more vulnerableThis has been exacerbated by the gaps and exclusion that exists in many social protection systems around the world. The panellists concluded that it is now crucial therefore to use this opportunity to redesign social protection programmes in order to be more universal, with lifecycle inclusive systems.

Post–COVID, this would not only support broader human rights and development agendas but also demonstrate that lessons have been learnt. The narrative could move away from the regressive, poor vs non-poor dichotomy—of targeting and exclusion—towards more progressive systems—based on universalism and entitlements—that better protect everyone against vulnerability across the lifecycle for any potential, future socio-economic crises. 

Read the Spanish translation here

Watch the webinar here

Listen to Alexandra Barrantes explain five human rights considerations to the social protection response to COVID-19

Read more like this:

Pathways’ PerspectivesWhy are human rights considerations fundamental to inclusive and lifecycle social protection systems? – Alexandra Barrantes

Blog: Are we drifting away from a human rights approach to development? – Abdul Alim

NewsWebinar reflections on a “Gender data series”

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