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Can social protection be transformative?

I recently attended the conference Social Protection for Social Justice at the Institute of Development Studies. 

The conference explored the potential of social protection to go beyond its usual goals of providing safety nets and managing risks, and move towards broader concerns such as redistribution and social justice. 

What is social protection?

Social protection is a set of policies designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability. 

The most common examples are cash or food transfers (direct payments of money or food). In some cases, households are given cash or food after labouring on public projects, or after fulfilling conditions, such as keeping their children in school or visiting health centres. 

Social protection can be summarised in three P’s (borrowed from the World Bank):

1. Prevent household well-being from going down during times of lower income (e.g. sudden unemployment).

2. Protect households from reversing education and health gains during times of crisis (e.g. during the global economic crisis).

3. Promote opportunities for livelihood.

Some people are looking to extend the three P’s to make social protection transformative, which means addressing the deeper causes of poverty such as inequality, social inclusion and lack of voice among others.

Can social protection be transformative? 

Social protection should do more than just keep people from being too poor and should promote getting people out of poverty, but can we transform the deeper causes of poverty with the social protection instruments we have at the moment?

For example, giving women cash might allow them to buy more food for their families or send their children to school, but the money alone will not change unequal gender relations, which is a key reason why so many women are poor in the first place.  

What do we want from social protection for children? I’d say we want it to equalise opportunities. 

Social protection programmes should give families access to education, healthcare, and safety nets during times of crisis so they do not have to withdraw their children from school or put them to work. But even if social protection does all of this, it still won’t ensure the equality of the outcome. 

Inequality can exist even in societies where almost everyone has access to education and healthcare. So, has social protection failed in those cases? If it has equalised opportunities, especially in developing countries where the odds are stacked against poor children, then it has done a lot of good already.

There is a danger in development that if a policy or programme is successful, we pin all our hopes on it and overload it with many more objectives. This can result in the policy or programme failing to meet the new objectives, and losing the capacity to do the things it did really well originally.

How can we make it work?

The coverage and design challenges of current schemes have to be overcome if we want social protection to do more. The Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia and the National Rural Guarantee Act in India are two particularly big programmes, but their coverage is still low in relation to the need within the country. 

So, do we need to design a new set of schemes for social protection to be transformative?  If so, what will they look like?

Social protection is producing positive results and it’s right to look at the potential to be transformative. But we need to think hard about how to achieve this whilst ensuring that current social protection programmes do not lose their strength. 

Finally, remember that I’m not a social protection expert, so these reflections should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Read our child protection blog.

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