Social protection an essential part of decent work

The UN Member States discuss the impact of social protection on reducing poverty and inequalities as well as boosting economic growth.

News | 15 October 2014
NEW YORK – The recent expansion of social protection programmes have shed new light on a range of social and economic benefits these investments can bring. And while this progress is encouraging, far too few have access to benefits with nearly three quarters of the world’s population without adequate social protection coverage.

On the occasion of the International Day for Decent Work, experts and diplomats gathered at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to discuss the state of social protection around the world and its role within the UN’s upcoming post-2015 development agenda.

The event served as the launch in New York of the ILO’s flagship World Social Protection Report 2014/15, which provides an overview of social protection systems, coverage, benefits and expenditures in more than 190 countries around the world.

In her opening statement, Jane Stewart, ILO Special Representative to the UN, said that “one of the main policy elements that makes work decent is social protection. The right to social security is essential whenever we speak about improving labour market institutions and outcomes.”

Recalling the UN’s work in shaping a new development agenda, the Permanent Representative of Canada, Ambassador Guillermo E. Rishchynski, said careful thought and deliberation would be needed to create a truly transformative framework that would be relevant for all countries. Ambassador Rishchynski said that “resolving questions about the feasibility and measurability of different proposals would be critical” and that Member States would require further technical guidance to ultimately take action to achieve the necessary social benefits in their countries.

“It is the technical support of specialized international organizations that, in our judgment, is going to be fundamental to our ability to answer these questions,” said Mr Rishchynski. “The World Social Protection Report being presented today by the ILO is a clear example of how agencies and the [UN] Secretariat can help Member States in this process.”

Ambassador Rishchynski stated that the report contained various policies, statistical methods and indicators that Member States could use in pursuing the proposed target on extending social protection systems and floors. He said it was social protection measures in his own country – focused on health, pensions, and expanding unemployment insurance – which had contributed to Canada’s recovery in the wake of the crisis.

The Permanent Representative of Belgium to the UN and co-chair of intergovernmental Group of Friends of Decent Work for Sustainable Development, Ambassador Bénédicte Frankinet, stressed the importance of the “universal nature of the new development agenda”, which is intended to apply equally to both developed and developing countries. In particular, Ambassador Frankinet noted that “rising inequalities is a growing phenomenon at all levels of economic development.”

“Decent work and social protection are two powerful instruments in the fight against inequality,” said Ambassador Frankinet. “They are not a luxury or something that you do at the end of development—they are an engine driving more socially sustainable societies.”

It was noted by the assembled delegates that social protection measures that serve to mitigate and even reduce inequalities are coming under intense pressure in places where governments are seeking to roll back public spending, often at the expense of critical social programmes.

“The report that we have before us highlights the apparent tensions that are rising on one hand from the budget-balancing policies that have been put in place by many countries in response to the economic and financial crisis and conversely the need to safeguard and extend the appropriate levels of social protection” said Ambassador Frankinet. “We need to put our minds to this and offer the proper answers to the apparent contradiction.”

Following-up on these points, Ambassador Guilherme Patriota of Brazil stated that the report provided good examples to compare domestic policies to the ILO’s examination of needed social protection measures. Ambassador Patriota stated that social protection policies which act as economic shock absorbers during a crisis are “not supposed to be cut when things are bad, but we should naturally expand them.”

In his remarks, Ambassador Yusra Khan of Indonesia outlined recent moves made by his country to complete the social protection floor in line with ILO Recommendation 202 that will provide universal basic social protection coverage, including comprehensive health protection, to all residents. Recognizing the important work of the ILO on social protection, Ambassador Khan also lauded Member States on their advancements in social protection and on their contributions to the ILO report.

In presenting the Report, Isabel Ortiz, Director of the ILO Social Protection Department, said that although the “impact of social protection on the reduction of poverty and inequalities are well known, its role in sustaining and boosting economic growth—particularly in times of downturn—were too often overlooked.”

“Currently we are in a period of low growth, partially due to the depressed world markets due to the crisis. At a time of low demand, it is very important to increase household income. It is by increasing household income that you can boost national or domestic demand. Social protection together with wages are two of the main elements to achieve this needed demand,” Ms. Ortiz stated.

She pointed to the large expansion of non-contributory social pensions in the developing world that have achieved near-universal coverage, thereby improving the lives of many older persons and increasing their purchasing power and consumption. Despite these known advantages in stimulating demand-led growth, Ms. Ortiz stated that many governments were not tapping into the full potential of social protection policies, and were in fact rolling back critical programs that many vulnerable individuals rely upon.

“Since 2010, a number of higher- and middle-income countries have embarked on policies of fiscal consolidation. As a result—and we have the data for Europe, for example—we see that pensioners in at least 14 European countries will have lower pensions by 2015,” she said. “This is a very worrisome trend that needs to be monitored.”

Ms. Ortiz stated that the World Social Protection Report shows how “fiscal re-allocations and strong institutions in countries of all income levels can provide for social protection systems.”

In closing the meeting, Selim Jahan, Director of UNDP’s Human Development Report emphasized the need for attention to three critical issues. “Firstly, social protection should not be confused with social safety nets, which cater to specific groups or welfare programs. Social protection should be viewed as a development issue.” Mr. Jahan also recognized that the data provided in the report is efficient in scale and scope, but this “data collection and analysis is just the beginning and should continue to be disaggregated and disseminated.” Lastly, many “approach social protection with a resource-centric view” accusing the lack of resources for the hindrance of providing social protection floors.

The report’s findings will serve as a rich resource for future discussions and help Member States build upon the lessons learned from the MDGs and inform negotiations as they work to develop a new development agenda beyond 2015.