Today marks the release of Oxfam International’s report “Shelter from the Storm: The global need for social protection in times of COVID-19”. The paper – which was developed using research conducted by Development Pathways – analyses the scope and adequacy of social protection responses to the crisis and strongly endorses a universal approach.
Decades of relying on means-tested, poor relief benefits has left countries across the Global South entirely unprepared for a universal shock-like COVID-19. Around 75 per cent of the 126 countries included in the study of low- and middle-income countries introduced an emergency social protection response. Yet, contrary to popular perception, closer analysis shows that most of these responses are not large and long-lasting enough to provide adequate support to the majority of families.
With the exception of a few countries, most responses have been short-lived (41 per cent of emergency schemes were one-time payments), offering low benefit levels when assessed against their capacity to provide support across a six-month period (62 per cent of schemes offered less than 3 per cent of monthly GDP per capita, which is very little) and covering too few people (coverage has varied widely between 0.01 per cent – 95 per cent but 81 per cent of the countries covered less than half their population). This has resulted in low levels of spending, with 64 per cent of countries investing less than 0.5 per cent of GDP in emergency social protection. Such a low level of spending falls short of providing a meaningful boost to households’ consumption and will fail to adequately stimulate economies and support economic recovery.
It is those countries that had already invested in building an inclusive lifecycle social protection system (South Africa, Bolivia, Mongolia), that were in a stronger position to respond to the crisis. These countries could scale up existing benefits to instantly provide the majority of households with support and introduce new temporary schemes to fill in the gaps for those not covered, proving that universal schemes are the ultimate shock-responsive policy. In fact, following the popularity of South Africa’s universal approach to its emergency response, it is likely that it will introduce a Basic Income Grant (BIG) next year, with the Minister of Social Development promising to bring a draft policy to cabinet by March 2021.
Oxfam’s paper is published at a time of increasing consensus, among national Governments and international institutions alike, that countries must take a universal approach to social protection during this crisis and beyond. This year, the IMF, the ILO, the World Bank and many others have all endorsed universal transfers, recognising that they are the only way to reach people in a universal crisis like COVID-19 while recommending their use as a fiscal stimulus to rescue economies. Universal transfers have also been increasingly recognised by organisations such as the IMF for their role in reducing inequality and, in turn, promoting trust in government and social cohesion.
The analysis validates what Development Pathways has long contended: that the multi-faceted benefits of a universal approach are borne out by the evidence. It just took a devastating global crisis like COVID-19 – that has confronted us with the truth that we are all vulnerable – to fully reveal it. Oxfam’s contribution to this body of evidence provides a timely demonstration of the necessity and cost-effectiveness of universal social protection globally. It will be an invaluable tool as those of us who are committed to social justice continue to advocate for universal social protection as the best way to effectively respond to vulnerability and income insecurity, both during times of COVID-19 and beyond.
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Pathways’ Perspectives: What has the COVID-19 crisis taught us about social protection?