Promoting Livelihoods and Social Protection
It is estimated that only about 20% of the world’s population have access to comprehensive social security programs, which are known as social protection programs. This means that most people do not have, or have inadequate, access to essential services such as health and education and lack basic income security. This low figure is despite the fact that social protection has been inscribed as a human right in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights for over 60 years.
Social protection was the topic of a workshop I recently attended in Geneva hosted by the German foundation, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization have negotiated a recommendation on a Social Protection Floor and the workshop was aimed at strengthening and promotion that recommendation, due to be voted on this June. (See Social protection floors for social justice and a fair globalization, Report IV(2B),) . The Recommendation aims to provide more specificity than previous agreements about what social protection should include, importantly, social protection “floors.” A floor is a basic minimum that should be provided for all and that programs should, together, provide comprehensive coverage rather than be scattershot, which is often the case.
Despite the world’s rather dismal performance to date in providing social protection coverage, the workshop was actually very affirming – especially for someone who works in poverty alleviation. There appears to be real momentum as evidence mounts from some good leaders of the pack that even in poor countries there are ways to provide social protection floors – both technically and financially – thus undermining old arguments that it’s all well and good for wealthy countries to have comprehensive social security programs, but poor countries simply can’t afford them. The more it becomes clear that barriers are more a matter of political will than technical and financial feasibility, the easier it is to provide pressure to change that political will.
And if the argument that every person has a right to social security doesn’t do it for you, evidence is also mounting that such programs make sense economically. They create domestic demand thus stimulating local economies (which proved particularly important during the global financial crisis), and build a more productive population through increasing access to health, education, etc.
But my main concern in being at the workshop was figuring out what all this means for an organization like Trickle Up, and what role we should be playing promoting social protection.
When explaining the need for livelihood opportunities for our target population we sometimes point out that the ultra-poor (the very poorest of the extreme poor) are usually overlooked by economic strengthening programs as their level of vulnerability means that social safety net programs are seen as the main way of reaching them (the argument being that safety nets can stave off crises but don’t generally break cycles of poverty). But of course we have always known that most of our participants don’t have access to social security, or safety net, programs.
Given the levels of vulnerability our target populations experience – including structural issues, like caste, ethnicity, gender, disability, geographic isolation – it’s a hard, long road out of poverty. So over the years we have increasingly come to recognize that social protection programs should form part of the foundation upon which our participants can build their livelihoods. Hence the “linkage” work that is already part of many of our programs: educating people about their rights to social programs where they do exit, helping people organize in self-help groups to access and demand those rights, and supporting our partners to advocate with local officials where necessary to overcome obstacles to access, such as social prejudices and corruption.
We should also be thinking seriously about how Trickle Up, our partner organizations, and our program participants can seize the opportunities that will be created by the likely passing of this ILO Recommendation. How can we leverage our connection to and deep knowledge of ultra-poor populations to expand our advocacy agenda further up the hierarchy of decision-makers, with the message that a social protection floor is a right, and also a foundation for building sustainable livelihoods? Happily, I think such questions fit very nicely with our Strategic Plan for the next three years, which we’ve been busy developing over the last months. This plan includes an explicit focus on advocacy – something that we have been doing for many years though not as deliberately as we might have. While we are still exploring at what levels, and through what avenues, we can best use our energies, we are starting to be ever more deliberate in building on the enormous potential we’ve seen among self-help groups to provide a voice for historically marginalized and excluded populations, so that they at least can better articulate their rights.