Where has the social protection debate got to? What's still missing?

bolsa familia 2the difference between social protection and social policy? Depends who you ask). So a couple of weeks ago, I was secretly appalled when asked to give a 5 minute blogger’s input to a big IDS conference on ‘Social Protection for Social Justice’. Luckily I’m an early riser, so to avoid embarrassment I got up early to find out where this bit of the SP debate is heading, by reading all 57 abstracts. These academics are seriously productive, but they do tend to confuse outputs (papers) with outcomes (protecting anyone). Some impressions (with the caveat that it’s sometimes hard to judge a paper from the abstract – note to authors, please include your conclusions in the abstract as it may well be the only bit of your paper that gets read): SP advocates (SPistas?) are all scrambling out of their siloes and developing ideas and programming around ‘SP plus’ – SP and climate change adaptation; SP and inequality; SP and gender empowerment; ‘transformative’ SP (me neither). The motive behind this is laudable – recognizing both that seeing SP simply as a technical exercise (eg cash transfers) misses out on its potential to change social relations for the better (or worse – see below), and that even supposedly apolitical SP systems have complex and important social and political repercussions – who gets the money? What do the neighbours think? How humiliating is the process? So far so good, but it feels like SP still has a way to go: 1. Very little consideration of the politics: when do/don’t governments listen and take up all these excellent ideas and why? How politically sustainable are they – can you ensure that the next government doesn’t scrap its predecessor’s scheme? Does enshrining it in law or the constitution make it politically stickier? Or will a social pact/cross party agreement do the trick? All too often, advocates fall back on exhortation and an implicit notion that ‘we know what’s needed, and if you don’t agree you are either stupid, corrupt or both’. Not the best advocacy strategy. 2. SP remains an overwhelmingly state-led project. SPistas sometimes behave as if nothing else is going on – poor people are just sitting there waiting for the cash transfer person to knock on the door. But our research on the impact of the global economic crisis and studies like Portfolios of the Poor reveal a rich ecosystem of what could be termed ‘informal social protection’ – savings groups, churches, burial societies, microfinance groups, families and friends. It seems almost inevitable that the introduction of a state SP system is going to have a significant effect on this ecosystem, and that it could be positive (more to share around) or negative (targeting creates jealousy and erodes trust). One example of how this changes conventional wisdom – research in Zimbabwe found that recipients were much more likely to share food parcels with their neighbours (building social capital), whereas they tended to hang on to cash transfers, potentially causing division. A few papers started to explore this fascinating topic (e.g. this 3 country study by Ian MacAuslan and Nils Riemenschneider) but it’s clearly a crucial and neglected topic. 3. I’m all for creative ambiguity, fuzzwords etc, but the boundaries on SP are too blurred even for me. Does it comprise all social policy? Or go even wider – after all, the tax system is a vital tool of redistribution, so should that be included? For once, I would actually advocate a narrower definition so we all know that we are discussing roughly the same thing. MNREGA4. Out of the 57 papers there were remarkably few straightforward case studies, recording in plain English the views of poor people about the impacts (both good and bad) of different SP programmes on their lives. What case studies there were were either much more conceptual and less participatory than that, or demonstrated some spectacular researcher herding from Brazil’s Bolsa Escola (so last decade) to SP’s new poster child, India’s MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). Please can we hear more from ‘beneficiaries’, especially in low income countries? Finally a nice cautionary note from the LSE’s Prof Thandika Mkandawire, warning against the deceptive simplicity of SP: ‘SP encourages the view that you can intervene in Africa and skip the elites to reach poor people directly – we have enough trouble doing it from our capitals, how can you hope to do it from London?!’ I’m sure the Africa Power and Politics Programme would approve.]]>

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8 Responses to “Where has the social protection debate got to? What's still missing?”
  1. Duncan, you’re not alone. I have been working on social protection for a good few years and still get very confused at the variety of definitions flying around at these conferences. I’d agree with you on the need for a narrower definition. At HelpAge we basically see social protection as a system of social transfers (cash or food). Some could argue that this cuts out other important areas, but I would argue the very opposite. By being clear on what social protection is – and isn’t – it makes it far easier to have a proper discussion about where it fits within social policy more broadly. For example, asking the question of what balance is needed between social protection and health, education etc and the other business of government? And how should governments finance this whole package?
    While I think the conference included some fascinating things, I’m not sure it can be used to give a full view of the current social protection debate. I agree that there tends to be a lot of focus on the certain schemes like Bolsa Familia and MNREGA. I also think that quite a lot can slip under the radar of the social protection development discourse, in particular when it is the idea of a government rather than a donor or an NGO.
    And on the politics, you might be interested in what’s happening in Peru at the moment. Ollanta Humala, who led the first round of the presidential election, has proposed a “Pension 65” (a social pension for everyone without any other form of pension over the age of 65) as a key manifesto pledge. It is apparently one of the three most important policy pledges for those who intend to vote for him. Also, interestingly, the idea was directly lifted from the proposal of a national association of older people. There’s clearly a lot going on here but it seems there’s some work to do on learning from these examples.

  2. Christie

    I am glad you are discussing social protection on your blog. However, I was unclear as to whether your post was based on only the 57 abstracts you read? If not, I am surprised at your comment that there is little consideration of politics. My experience from working in this field is completely different. Political considerations are key, and most SP programs these days will give it great attention, so does social policy dialogue. In fact, you may find several papers (if you can read more after those 57!) on political sustainabiity and ownership of social protection. Brazil and the Philippines are only two examples where huge programs have survived political changes.
    Completely agree on your points 2 and 4. On 3, I don’t find it very productive to let definitional differences stand in the way for good policies and programming…

  3. Hi Duncan,
    Congratulations on an interesting and relevant post which stands out among the many fluffy documents floating around on SP!
    You mentioned one issue specifically which is all too often still ignored in the discourse but which appears completely logical and in line with human nature and which deserves much more attention and better understanding. In my 10 years of working in various African cultural settings I have consistently found that while in-kind support is shared (often too much for the implementers’ liking and for outcomes to be demonstrable), money is not. There are a few studies all confirming this experience from various African settings, but more rigorous and wider research of this question will certainly give us something to think about.
    Somehow it also reminds me of my own family history where my grandma who owned a small farm would of course have given her “poor relations in town” some bacon, sausage and eggs to take home from their visit to the rural farm house, but she would never have shared any cash with them. Sound familiar?
    Happy weekend!

  4. Ugo Gentilini

    Dear Duncan,
    I’m fully sympathetic with your sense of slipperiness. There is a trade-off between being conceptually comprehensive and practically relevant. Often times, SP debates seem lost in between.
    You touched some of the tipping points, all somewhat calling for more bottom-up approaches to SP. I concur with such need. I guess another related feature of the debate is its overwhelming emphasis on instruments (cash transfers, public works etc), while much less attention is paid to how SP “systems” are forged – including the mix of historical, political, economic and sociological ingredients, just to name a few, that shape SP in particular, and social contracts in general.
    Innovative ways of delivering benefits (mobile phones, smart cards etc), philosophical debates around conditionality, or choosing between randomized and quasi-experimental evaluation methods are all important issues – but I really hope they will not overshadow the deeper systemic issues that ultimately influence the demand for SP, its supply, and its political and economic sustainability over time.
    For the moment, the debate seems slightly too ideological, from the standpoint of the “SPistas” and their detractors alike. It would be interesting to see approaches that don’t attempt to “convince” policymakers as a starting point or objective per se, but rather try to understand and unbundle the possible trade-offs that people face during the development pathway.
    (Fyi, we tried to capture some of these issues in a forthcoming paper, “Social protection 2.0: exploring issues, evidence and debates in a globalizing world”, appearing in the June issue of Food Policy).

  5. savina

    Hi Duncan, thanks for this clarification of your view of the social protection debate.
    I have to say that, having been at the conference you review, and participated in the presentations and the discussions that followed (hoping the disclosure does not automatically make me a crazy SPista and disqualify me from making any sensible comment), my overall impression was that your points 1 and 2 were very much part of the arguments on the floor. Moreover, they have been around for quite some time (see for example Devereux 1999 on the implications and trade-offs of formal and informal safety nets in Malawi). This said, I would agree with you that much more work needs to be done in this direction, and that widespread acknowledgement of the role of politics for sustainable uptake of programmes on one side, and of the relevance of informal safety net mechanisms on individual and group vulnerabilities on the other, are crucial both for the policy processes establishing SP and for its implementation. Wasn’t widening this debate part of what the conference was all about in the first place, and what many of the interventions referred to?
    I would add that a narrower definition might be academically useful, but that, pragmatically, there is something to say for a fuzzier one, which allows different actors within the political domain to use the concept strategically according to circumstances. It is exactly because of the political dimension of SP that you mention in point 1, that vague boundaries can in fact better serve our purposes, if these are to advance social justice, even in contexts where this is not an explicit aim. A consultant talking with ministerial functionaries will not use the same language as an NGO campaigning at grassroots level, while possibly ultimately both will have the same goals. In this perspective, I am not sure how much will be gained by narrowing down and un-fuzzying our definition.
    Finally, I really appreciate your point 4, calling for more participatory research on the impacts of SP programmes on poor people’s lives. Wouldn’t it be great if Oxfam would take the suggestion forwards, and carry out a full-fledged research on the topic?

  6. Thanks Duncan for an great piece (and invention of the SPistas terminology!).
    There’s an excellent presentation by the UN Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda, on how human rights standards should guide the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of social
    protection systems – http://bit.ly/lHDbVQ. The part on the risks to HR of conditionalities is very insightful.
    On your point two, ATD Fourth World’s grassroots experience from Burkina Faso is that an imposed SP framework may undermine traditional solidarity mechanisms. For French readers, you can read this blog entry – http://bit.ly/mtOXTR

  7. savina

    And by the way, a strong consensus emerged during the conference on the need to link SP to a broader and more comprehensive social policy agenda, and notably to labour market policy instruments, and to reach out to movements which have historically addressed the tansformation of social relations, in particular in the sphere of production.

  8. Alice

    I particularly like Mkandawire’s comment, about donors making an special role for themselves bypassing the political elite.
    Donor interest in social protection seems to maintain their long-standing tendency to intervene in developing countries, rather than prevent the mess in the first place, e.g. ‘SP and climate change adaptation’.
    Donors might be better off concentrating on eliminating the international sources of risk and vulnerability which impoverish people, such as climate change (but also agricultural subsidies, arms trade, global financial crises and efforts towards ETI).
    Like, people talk about social protection creating a social compact between citizen and state, but some research suggests that easy government access to aid and oil/mineral royalties/ small arms undermines this link.
    I think social protection should start with doing no harm in the developed world.