Social protection continues to be conceptualised in terms of economic safety nets. What are the limitations of this as an analytical framework? How can the broader, transformative potential for social protection be implemented in pro-poor programming? Compiled for the Institute of Development Studies, this paper considers social protection policies in practice and concludes by reasserting the case for social as well as economic goals in development.
Social protection emerged as a critical response to the safety nets discourse of the late 1980s and 1990s as thinking on livelihoods, risk, vulnerability and the multi-dimensional nature of poverty became more nuanced. Whilst the broader potential of social protection has come to be recognised and its links to sustainable poverty reduction vigorously promoted, the socially transformative dimension has not yet become a key component of anti-poverty programming in practice.
Social protection has recently become mainstreamed in development discourse, but it describes a proliferation of concepts and understandings. The core components and boundaries of social protection are far from agreed.
- Some see social protection as essentially a new label for old-style social welfare provided to the ‘deserving poor’.
- Many policymakers continue to equate social protection with social safety nets or interventions that cushion the poor against production and consumption shocks, such as food aid for drought-affected farmers.
- Others adopt a very broad approach, including education and health subsidies, job creation and microcredit programmes.
- A more political or transformative view extends the definition of social protection to equity, empowerment and economic, social and cultural rights. This goes beyond targeted income and consumption transfers.
- Social protection must address livelihood threats related to the vulnerability of being poor, the risk of becoming poor and social injustice arising from structural inequalities and abuses of power.
- Instead of defining social protection as public actions delivered through public agencies, a broader classification would include formal public and private sources and informal collective or community-level channels.
The range of interventions that can provide social protection is much broader than resource transfers, although these are obviously important where vulnerable groups are unable to survive on their own resources.
- Strategies to deal with social vulnerability require a transformative element, namely to pursue policies that relate to social power imbalances that encourage, create and sustain vulnerabilities.
- Social protection should concern itself directly with addressing aspects of ‘social risk’ and non-economic vulnerability, such as social exclusion, discrimination and violations of minority rights.
- Poverty and vulnerability involve social deprivation as well as economic deprivation. An enhanced understanding of social protection has the potential to address both the material and the social inequalities faced by poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups.
- Social protection mechanisms must be carefully selected and prudently designed and can be transformative and affordable while contributing to the policy goals of pro-poor economic growth and improved social equity.
- A comprehensive package of social protection measures can support a development trajectory that maximises the reduction of both poverty and inequity, without breaking the national budget.