In an event titled “Expanding social protection to decrease inequality,” Carin Jämtin, Director General of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), emphasised that “COVID-19 presents an opportunity for universal social protection to be progressively realised, one step at a time, but always with a long-term perspective.” The seminar, which was organised by SIDA, took place on the 7th of October, as part of the conference “Turning the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity: What’s next for social protection?”
Jämtin emphasised that social protection should not be seen merely as an emergency response, nor as charity, but as permanent entitlements that citizens can claim as rights-holders. A panel of experts continued the conversation, highlighting several lessons from global experiences in responding to crises. Joakim Palme discussed the experiences of European welfare states, after which Michael Samson presented the achievements made to establish universal programmes across the Global South. Winnie Fiona Mwasiaji, Deputy Director of the Department of Social Development within the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of Kenya, subsequently presented the successes and challenges of Kenya. Ulrika Läng, Senior Policy Advisor for Social Protection of SIDA, discussed the role of partner support in addressing inequality through social protection. Finally, Gunnel Axelsson Nycander, Expert on Development Policy at the Act Church of Sweden, highlighted the challenges associated with poverty-targeting which are crucial to consider when designing social protection schemes.
Based on the innovation of social protection systems in Europe since the 1930s, Joakim Palme pointed out that countries with universal welfare policies weathered the storm caused by the Great Depression with lower social costs in comparison to countries with means-tested systems. Universal programmes in Europe promoted a “welfare contract” by building coalitions across generations, which required policies that balanced protection across childhood, working age and old age. Importantly, Palme highlighted that countries faced a “Paradox of Redistribution” as the more we are concerned with promoting equality by targeting benefits only at “the poor”, the less likely we are to reduce poverty and inequality. Similar to Pathways’ examination of the political economy of social protection, Palme argued that the more you rely on the majority to provide benefits for a minority, no sustainable majority will be gained for generous benefits to the poor, and “such benefits tend to be poor benefits” – quoting the well-known phrase by Amartya Sen.
In the context of COVID-19 and more crises to come, Palme suggested that an important lesson is that we should be addressing the demand side in economic recovery along with the supply side, by promoting countercyclical macro-economic policies underpinned by Keynesianism. Palme further highlighted that policymakers should not be concerned with costs, but with the design of social protection, which will be critical for its effectiveness in reducing poverty and inequality and promoting economic recovery (see UNDP and Pathways’ report presenting potential social security responses in Asia as a stimulus to address the COVID-19 crisis).
Universal approaches to social protection have contributed more effectively to inclusive social development and equitable economic growth across the global south, as presented by Michael Samson. Importantly, he stressed that universal social protection is affordable in all countries if progressively realised. Based on successes demonstrated in South Africa, Lesotho and Nepal, Samson highlighted that government ownership and political will drive the path to universalism and that this can be accelerated through evidence-informed approaches, such as highlighting the efficacy of targeted approaches and underlining its challenges.
Based on the Kenyan context, Winnie Fiona Mwasiaji highlighted the Government’s commitment to gradually expanding social protection across the lifecycle through the country’s Inua Jamii schemes, which led to the implementation of a universal social pension in 2017. Since then, the Government has been examining the feasibility of expanding the poverty-targeted Cash Transfer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (CT-OVC) into a universal child benefit. She highlighted that the Government of Kenya is fully committed to the progressive realisation of universal coverage to reduce inequality, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has created the momentum for this to happen. However, it will require political will, local prioritisation for investments, and partner support.
To prioritise sustainable investments in social protection, Ulrika Läng highlighted that partner support should be based on national government priorities and building linkages between social protection and other services. In particular, she added that investing in social protection programmes for children is an investment in human capital and the growth of a country, for which cash alone is not effective enough, but further investments in child-sensitive policies are crucial.
On the design of social protection schemes, Gunnel Axelsson Nycander pointed to the proven inaccuracies of targeting mechanisms published by the Act Church of Sweden and Development Pathways in an updated version of the report “Hit and Miss” this year. She added that targeting mechanisms such as proxy means tests create confusion among citizens, which undermine the social contract between authorities and citizens. Nycander emphasised the importance of partners working together towards progressive universalisation in order to effectively reduce poverty and inequality.
In summary, the event highlighted the importance of building long-lasting, inclusive social protection systems in order to effectively address inequalities within society. Universal programmes are an essential means of achieving sustainable and fair redistribution and the COVID-19 pandemic has created the momentum to achieve this. Indeed, the crisis exposes the insecurities faced by all, and this key lesson should underpin the design of our social protection systems, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and long after the crisis is over.
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