Social protection is concerned with protecting and helping those who are poor, vulnerable, marginalised or dealing with risks. The risks can be idiosyncratic, affecting individuals or households, and can be associated with life cycle stages. Or they can be covariate (large-scale), affecting communities or regions due to climate, conflict or other stresses and shocks. Vulnerable groups helped by social protection include poor children, women, older people, and people living with disabilities, as well as the displaced, the unemployed, and the sick.
Social protection is commonly understood as ‘all public and private initiatives that provide income or consumption transfers to the poor, protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks and enhance the social status and rights of the marginalised; with the overall objective of reducing the economic and social vulnerability of poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups’ (Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler, 2004: i). This definition is in line with usage in international development and may be different from social policy definitions in high-income countries. Social protection consists of ‘a set of nationally-owned policies and programmes’ (UNDP, 2016: 12), usually provided by the state (through domestic resources, either contributions or tax finance), with support from international donors in particular for least developed and lower middle-income countries (UN DESA, 2018: 6). Social protection is theoretically conceived as part of the ‘state–citizen’ contract, in which states and citizens have rights and responsibilities to each other (Harvey et al., 2007).
There are ongoing debates about which interventions constitute social protection, as there can be some overlapping with a number of livelihoods, human capital and food security interventions (ibid.). Moreover, while there is wide agreement on the desirability of social protection provision in general, there is significant variation on what this means in practice in low- and middle-income countries – in terms of ‘for whom it should be provided, and how and in what form’ (McCord, 2013: vii).
The objectives of social protection vary widely, from reducing poverty and vulnerability, building human capital, empowering women and girls, improving livelihoods, and responding to economic and other shocks. As a result, there is a great deal of variation in social protection approach, composition, and implementation (UNDP, 2016: 14).
Typical short-term objectives are to help people meet basic needs, smooth consumption and mitigate the immediate impact of shocks. Programmes can support a basic level of income for people living in poverty or prevent people from falling into poverty, or deeper into poverty, when they are affected by illness or drought, for example.
Other social protection objectives focus on longer-term development and supporting people to move permanently or stay out of poverty (Babajanian et al., 2014). Longer-term goals include improving opportunities for inclusive growth, human capital development, and social stability. Some social protection programmes intend to be transformative, supporting equity, empowerment and human rights. The potential of social protection to achieve social justice outcomes for marginalised social groups is increasingly recognised (Jones & Shahrokh, 2013: 1).
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include social protection targets under Goals 1, 3, 5, 8 and 10 (see Table 1). Moreover, social protection is ‘a critical tool to simultaneously achieve progress in many fundamentally interlinked Goals and Targets’, as social protection has the potential to act on the multiple drivers of exclusion and deprivation (UNDP, 2016: 8–9).
Table 1. Social protection and the Sustainable Development Goals