News Icon

Examining the progress of the World Bank’s commitment to universal social protection


Washington, D.C.: The Civil Society Policy Forum event, ‘Examining the progress of the World Bank’s commitment to universal social protection,’ took place at the 2024 World Bank/IMF Spring meetings in Washington D.C. on 17 April 2024. The event was moderated by David Sherfinski of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and sponsored by members of the Campaign for the Right to Social Security. Matthew Greenslade, Associate with Development Pathways, who presented at the event, gives a personal view.

At the event’s start, I presented messages from my upcoming book, ‘Beyond the World Bank: the fight for universal social protection in the Global South.’* These messages are also included in an article published by the Bretton Woods Project in advance of the event. My main point was that, in social protection, the World Bank has been over-promoting poverty targeting using proxy means testing, which has high targeting errors and the potential to generate social unrest while lacking popular and political support. Part of the reason for this push is the need for the World Bank to attach officially approved approaches to social protection loans.

I was followed by other speakers including Jamele Rigolini, Deputy Director of Social Protection and Jobs at the World Bank, who said poverty targeting was supported by the World Bank in low-income countries because tax systems were not progressive, and that no targeting mechanism was perfect, though it is also supported in middle-income contexts. Angella Kasule Nabwowe, Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) in Uganda, then talked about the wider vulnerability of the population in Uganda, not just those below the poverty line, and the difficulty of having up-to-date data on households for effective poverty targeting. She also talked about how much of the population is excluded from the national ID system, reducing access to social protection. Finally, Isobel Frye, Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative in South Africa, talked about the importance of universality for social cohesion and for coping with shocks, and how with universal social security provisioning, states can use the tax system to tax back benefits from the better off, ensuring that all benefit at the point of distribution. She said contributory benefits also need to be extended to informal workers, especially women, and that a universal basic income for South Africa is now being considered.

There was some discussion at the event but, in the end, it was frustrating that the World Bank gave a corporate line rather than engaging more directly on the points raised and on the real-world impact of its approach. Jamele Rigolini said systems should be a combination of integrated programmes (which presumably can be universal or poverty-targeted). He also acknowledged there may be scope to do things differently in middle-income countries, where resources are greater and tax regimes presumably more progressive. But the World Bank’s unremitting promotion of social registries in both low- and middle-income countries, which are designed to target the poorest members of a society across a range of programmes and were described by Jamele Rigolini as ‘a brilliant thing’ – notwithstanding their lack of coverage and high levels of inaccuracy (among other issues) – suggests that, in practice, the World Bank is still fixated on one particular model, in its support to governments (as Martin Ravallion has claimed, the devotion to poverty targeting is like a fetish).

I suggested the considerable resources devoted to social registries would be better spent on basic national identity systems, addressing, for example, the sort of national ID issues raised by Angella Kasule Nabwowe. The World Bank needs to pay greater heed to the fact that every context is different, in terms of how social protection programme design can either strengthen or undermine the social contract and national development. Governments representing populations must be in control of the design of sustainable and universal lifecycle social protection systems. There are always fiscal constraints, but universal schemes can start small and grow, even in low-income contexts, as Nepal has shown. Angella Kasule Nabwowe pointed out that a fraction of current illicit financial flows would be adequate to fund social protection systems. I pointed out that the budget for the World Bank’s multi-year Social and Economic Inclusion Project in Kenya, which supports a poverty-targeted programme with high exclusion errors, is significantly greater than the annual spend on the universal pension there, which the government introduced and the World Bank opposed. Isobel Frye also mentioned a growing appreciation for how a multiplier on social security spending can lead to growth which can sustain and fund more inclusive coverage of social security systems as economic stimulus and investment into the economy as well as for the well-being of the population.

Matthew Greenslade
Associate Development Pathways

* ‘Beyond the World Bank: the fight for universal social protection in the Global South’ will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.