There are several different conceptual approaches for framing social protection objectives. These have developed over time and have been taken up and promoted by different countries and international organisations. Each conceptualises potential impacts in different ways, including a focus on transformation, human capital formation, reduction of vulnerability, and securing human rights. Approaches often combine a variety of these elements but differ in primary focus.
Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler (2004) provide a most commonly used conceptual framework, which describes four social protection functions:
- Protective: providing relief from deprivation (e.g. income benefits, state pensions);
- Preventative: averting deprivation (e.g. social insurance, savings clubs);
- Promotive: enhancing incomes and capabilities (e.g. inputs, public works); and
- Transformative: social equity and inclusion, empowerment, and rights (e.g. labour laws).
The first three functions (the three Ps) were originally conceptualised by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The addition of the transformative element positions social protection as a policy instrument that seeks to address structural causes of poverty by helping to rebalance unequal power relations, which cause vulnerabilities. In practice, social protection interventions usually cover multiple functions and objectives.
Another common framework is that social protection reduces vulnerability and risk by providing protection against shocks. This assumes that vulnerability to hazards constrains human and economic development (Barrientos & Hulme, 2009) and that risk management stabilises income and consumption, and is an investment in poverty reduction (Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler, 2007). The World Bank’s Social Risk Management framework first conceptualised the role of social protection in relation to risk (Holzmann & Jørgensen, 2000; updated Jorgensen & Siegel, 2019).
Social protection can also be conceptualised as an investment in human capital which increases capacities and the accumulation of productive assets (Barrientos, 2010), breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Promotion of opportunities is one of three overarching goals for social protection in the World Bank’s 2012–2022 Social Protection and Labour Strategy, highlighting social protection’s role in human capital formation (World Bank, 2012). Social protection contributes to human capital either directly, by providing food, skills and services, or indirectly, by providing cash and access, which enable households to invest in their own development.
The recognition that social protection can promote and protect human rights is now widespread (UNDP, 2016: 11). Social security (see Types of social protection for an explanation of the types of social protection) is a human right, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Sepúlveda & Nyst, 2012). A human rights-based approach underpins the United Nations’ Social Protection Floor Initiative and forms the basis for the development of social protection systems in many low- and middle-income countries.
Most countries in Europe, Northern America and Latin America have established legal social protection entitlements for every citizen (UN DESA, 2018: 8). In many countries in Africa and Asia, ‘legal coverage is limited to a few areas and only a minority of the population has access to social protection schemes anchored in national legislation’ (UN DESA, 2018: 9). There are exceptions in these regions: for example, India and South Africa recognise social protection as a human right and an entitlement (UN DESA 2018: 9; UNRISD, 2016; also see UNRISD Social Protection and Human Rights Platform – resource on domestic legislation).
Box 1. Social protection in international rights agreements
Table 2 summarises recent approaches to social protection and offers critiques.
Table 2. Analytical approaches to social protection
Source: Summarised and adapted from HLPE (2012: 25–26); updated with Ulrichs & White-Kaba (2019: 4).
Ulrichs, M., & White-Kaba, M. (2019). A systems perspective on Universal Social Protection – Towards life-long equitable access to comprehensive social protection for all. Bonn & Berlin: BMZ.
This discussion paper details how USP focuses on how to establish ‘one coherent, comprehensive social protection system that covers all people for all risks’ (p. 5). It charts how USP emerged as an initiative and sets out a systems perspective to enablers for and approaches to USP. It concludes with a set of key questions, which include asking whether the USP2030 goal (SDG 1.3) is realistic, how USP can be provided in low- and middle-income countries to informal workers, and if having the official shared USP2030 agenda has improved development partner coordination (among others).
McCord, A. (2013). The public pursuit of secure welfare: Background paper on international development institutions, social protection & developing countries. London: ODI.
This paper sets out the post-MDG debate, providing an overview of the historical, institutional and political factors that helped shape the future development goals and the role of social protection within them. It summarises how key international development institutions’ conceptual framework for social protection programming and policy developed.
HLPE. (2012). Social protection for food security. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome.
This report provides a clear framework for the range of social protection responses to food insecurity. It reviews evidence and experience, proposing recommendations for using social protection more effectively to protect and promote food security.
Devereux, S., & Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2004). Transformative social protection (IDS Working Paper 232). Brighton: IDS.
This paper outlines the transformative framework for social protection, which can achieve any of the four objectives: Protective: providing relief from deprivation; Preventative: averting deprivation; Promotive: enhancing incomes and capabilities; Transformative: social equity and inclusion, empowerment and rights. It argues against the welfarist approach to social protection and posits that social protection can achieve more than economic security.
UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). (2018). Promoting inclusion through social protection. Report on the world social situation 2018. United Nations.
UNDP. (2016). Leaving no one behind. A social protection primer for practitioners. New York: United Nations Development Programme.
White, P. (2016). Social protection systems (GSDRC Professional Development Reading Pack 49). Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
UNRISD. (2016). The human rights-based approach to social protection (Issue Brief 02). United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. https://socialprotection-humanrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/IB2-Human-rights-based-approach.pdf
Sepúlveda, M., & Nyst, C. (2012). The human rights approach to social protection. Helsinki: Ministry for Foreign Affairs (Finland).
Key resource: USP 2030 website
Animation: Extending social protection in Asia and the Pacific. (2018). UN ESCAP. (2m:36)
Animation: Why do we need social protection? (2018). UN ESCAP. (3m:04)
Animation: Social protection in East Africa – Harnessing the future. East African challenges and an overview of social protection objectives. (2017). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), European Union, & Government of Finland. (2m:22)
Video: ‘Building social protection floors together with development partners’. (2017). ILO. (2m:51)
Video: ‘The human rights-based approach to social protection’. (2013). UNRISD. (36m:55)
 Social security is explicitly mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whether or not social protection is a human right is debated, as it is often defined more broadly; some agencies and stakeholders (such as the ILO) make explicit references to social protection as a human right while others refrain from doing so. In cases where social protection is referred to as a human right, it is reported as such in this report. Otherwise we understand social security is a human right, and social protection to stand in support of human rights.
 https://www.usp2030.org/gimi /USP2030.action (Accessed 4 March 2019)