Social protection and responsible development

Inclusive Economy25 Jun 2014Annemarie van de Vijsel

Social protection is an important element of responsible development, but establishing adequate programmes is complex, as discussions at the EADI conference in Bonn, Germany, once more highlighted.

A conference on ‘Responsible development in a polycentric world’ would not be complete without working groups on social protection. Poverty, inequality, unemployment, social exclusion and economic shocks are all factors that can create a direct need for social protection to be provided.

As the discussions in two working groups observed, providing adequate social protection requires government action, the capability to deliver services, and financial resources. These three criteria are, however, not always met. As Cécile Cherrier of UNU-MERIT pointed out, “in environments where social protection programmes are most needed, national policymakers are often reluctant to introduce them”. Some countries may not have sufficient financial resources to provide social protection, or perhaps to distribute more than the value of one chicken a month to poor households. But, in the words of Henning Melber (Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, University of Pretoria, and University of the Free State), “it is about political will, not about finance.”

The findings of Frieda Vandeninden of UNU-MERIT can be seen partly in this light. Vandeninden found that in Europe and Central Asia – where, according to the World Bank, social protection programmes have been hit hardest by the financial crisis – “some countries increased the coverage and/or generosity of existing social protection programmes, whilst others introduced new programmes”. But this raises the question of whether social protection is to be seen as a solution to absorb the worst shocks caused by inequality and poverty or, more alarmingly, a clear sign that it is necessary?

Many studies, a number of which were presented at the EADI conference, investigate whether social protection programmes make a difference in these kind of cases. Jessica Hagen-Zanker of ODI for example concluded that social protection can have a positive effect on some drivers and consequences of social exclusion, but certainly not on all aspects and in all cases.

As several presentations made clear, social protection can also have an impact at a more personal level. Social contacts can improve among beneficiaries, they feel dignified, or enjoy a higher status. But there are, of course, also side effects, notably stigmatization. Non-beneficiaries may also experience negative effects, such as feelings of disappointment, while social ties within communities can be weakened.

The presentations in the working groups covered almost all regions, raising the question of whether regional differences can be distinguished. Development economist Gabriela Koehler pointed out that welfare spending in South Asia differs from other regions by focusing strongly on social inclusion. And Jennica Larisson of the World Bank investigated differences in perceptions of inequality and poverty and of the responsibility towards social protection within Europe and Central Asia. Strikingly, her research showed that these perceptions differ between countries, but that countries cannot be clustered along geographical or ideological lines. This resulted in a patchwork map in which, for example, the people of Spain and Russia share the same perceptions, while those of Germany and the Netherlands do not.

Critically discussing the design and implementation of social protection programmes around the world is important, also to challenge underlying assumptions that may not hold true in all contexts.

The Broker reports from the EADI conference ‘Responsible Development in a Polycentric World: Inequality, Citizenship and the Middle Classes’, 23 – 26 June 2014 in Bonn, Germany. The Broker is main media partner during this conference.