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Social protection

Know and demand your rights

by Floreana Miesen

In brief

Patient at a hospital in Tanga, Tanzania

Patient at a hospital in Tanga, Tanzania

For more than 80 % of the world population, there are no social safety nets. Such nets, however, help countries to cope better with crisis. By Floreana Miesen

For more than 80 % of the world population, there are no social safety nets. Such nets, however, help countries to cope better with crisis.

Sudha Pillai wants to mobilise international support. She is a member of the Social Protection Floor Advisory Group of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which belongs to the UN. From the perspective of the Advisory Group, basic social protection must provide:
– access to basic health care, including maternity leave,
– basic security for children (nutrition, education, care and other essential goods and services),
– basic income security for people of active age in cases of sickness, unemployment, maternity and disability, which is particularly relevant for people with low incomes, and
– basic income security for the elderly (pensions).

Today, the ILO stresses the need for social protection in the informal sector. Traditionally, it primarily addressed re­gular employment. This stance reflected its tripartite membership of governments, trade unions and formally registered companies. The informal sector was largely ignored for a long time, although it marks economies and social reality in many countries. Pillai demands that social safety nets must be designed to serve people with unstable and informal jobs.

There is ample evidence for countries with good social security systems coping with crisis better than others, says Pillai. Emerging powers like China understand the stabilising effect. Accordingly, the Chinese Labour Department is currently working on a pension scheme for the rural population as well as on social health projects. In India, the awareness and acceptance of the urgency of social protection is also high, Pillai says.

However, there is not much progress in many other countries. Governments of least ­developed countries typically argue they are overburdened. In Mozambique, the state is currently funding about 70 % of the social security programmes. International donors – such as governments of industrialised nations and multilateral organisations like UNICEF – provide the rest. Nonetheless, there are challenges: “We need trained personnel,” says Nelson Rondinho of Mozambique’s Ministry for Women and Social Action.

The international donor community generally dislikes funding social programmes in poor countries. Governments of rich countries want their development assistance to end poverty, not to merely ease it. Moreover, they do not want to ­establish a system of redistribution that taxes their own citizens to pay for poor people abroad, while sparing the wealthy and rich classes there.

Nicholas Taylor of the EU’s Directorate General for Development Cooperation insists that social safety nets should be ­financed with donor money. The funds should not be consumed fast, he says and demands “a long-term perspective”. Programmes must not be discontinued when donor funding ends, he points out. In his view, the ILO should provide technical assistance to countries designing safety nets so they can rely on their own resources.

Elliot Harris of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sings from the same song-sheet: “Many countries are not mobilising the resources they could.” Donors need to help governments of developing countries to tackle issues like corruption and inefficiency, he urges.

Helmut Schwarzer of the ILO complains that many poor people hesitate to make claims on social security systems. At a conference that was held by the Fried­rich Ebert Foundation and the ILO in Berlin in late September, Schwarzer said that shame, lack of information or unfavour­able geographical locations typically keep people from taking advantage of their country’s welfare systems. According to Christina Behrendt of Social Security Council of the ILO, education is an essential tool for the success of social programmes. People must know their rights in order to demand them.

Floreana Miesen