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Reflections on the "Reimagining Social Protection in a Time of Global Uncertainty" Conference

Patience Masi and Tia Palermo

The Institute for Development Studies in Brighton, England, held a conference entitled “Reimagining Social Protection in a Time of Global Uncertainty” from September 12-14, 2023. This conference brought together researchers, development partners, and civil society advocates to discuss important and emerging issues in social protection related to inclusion, innovation, COVID-19, crisis/humanitarian settings, politics, and climate. We attended this timely conference and share three key takeaways for future engagement on this topic.

Our first takeaway is the need for an inclusive approach to social protection and better harmonization of these efforts among development partners. Different development partners often work simultaneously with national governments on social protection but promote diverse priorities, lacking a harmonized voice and promoting competing frameworks. For example, agencies may advocate for social protection to be shock-responsive, child-sensitive, gender-responsive, disability-inclusive, or nutrition-sensitive, among others. These are all important and aim to address vulnerabilities among marginalized populations, but often prioritize one vulnerability (or phase of the lifecourse) above others. Conference participants offered suggestions for better harmonization and inclusivity, including combining instruments to ensure rights based social protection for all and the need to focus on broader systems of social protection rather than single programs. Interestingly, the researchers and advocates at this meeting did not talk much about “graduation.” While some in the academic community may be moving away from this term, many policymakers are still acutely focused on graduating households or individuals from programs, either because they believe the need for social assistance should be temporary, or because they are working in settings with great need and limited resources and want to provide others with the opportunity to benefit from programs. While working with policymakers focused on this difficult challenge, we underscore the need to advocate the position that individuals do not graduate from the need for social protection. Some may move from the need for social assistance to the need for social insurance or other programs, but individuals everywhere at all ages need adequate social protection coverage, and this is key for inclusion. At the same time, there are many people who will never stop needing social assistance (e.g., elderly caregivers, people with disability, etc.). These individuals have legitimate needs, and systems should plan for those.

A second takeaway is the need to link individuals and households (micro-level) with broader policy and community changes (macro level) to most effectively leverage social protection impacts. For example, social protection programs like cash transfers can often have broader and larger effects when linked to existing services across sectors (such as enrollment into national health insurance schemes) or complementary programming (training or behavior change communication). Individually targeted interventions can only be successful insofar as the broader context allows individuals to exercise their increased capacities. For example, are health services available and of sufficient quality? Do individuals receiving livelihoods training or adaptive social protection programming aimed at diversifying livelihood have access to markets to sell their goods or employ their new skills? Similarly, individually targeted interventions to empower women and promote gender equality may have limited impacts in settings with entrenched gender norms favoring men. For example, can women read and write, attend schooling, own land and assets, and own businesses at equal rates as men? If not, changes in gender norms may be needed before the full potential of social protection on gender equality outcomes can be realized. Not all of these contextual changes may be feasible (or efficient) for social protection programs to address directly, but they should at least be acknowledged when designing programming, and simultaneous efforts at change should be advocated at the appropriate level (for example, new policies, better public services, or community norms change).

A third takeaway is the need for a better understanding of attitudes toward program participants, both in terms of research priorities and communication of program objectives, including to implementers, participants, and communities in which participants live. In many settings, negative attitudes persist towards the poor and/or those who are unable to work, for example, due to disability or old age. Policymakers may favor programs that promote individual or community productivity such as Public Works Programs or agriculture input programs. Unconditional social assistance programs such as cash transfers are sometimes viewed as handouts which promote laziness and dependency, and thus are less popular with some policymakers. However, this myth has been busted by evidence over and over; cash transfers do not decrease adult labor. Nevertheless, these attitudes have important implications on program design (particularly targeting) and sustainability via government financing. Faced with competing priorities for government finances, there is a risk that whole subsets of the population, those deemed ‘unworthy’ or ‘undeserving’ of support may be excluded from social protection altogether due to these biased, negative attitudes. Conference participants suggested that more research is needed to get a more nuanced understanding of these attitudes and more importantly how to advocate for an inclusive social protection system while taking into account complex and deep-rooted ideologies.

In summary, participants were keen to see social protection expand in terms of coverage and adequacy and address vulnerabilities and needs of participants across a broad range of challenges, including global food prices, conflict and political instability, gender inequality, and climate change. Social protection systems must continue to adapt to be inclusive and fit for purpose, and innovative ideas promoted through meetings such as this one can facilitate this adaptation.

About the Authors

Patience Masi is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She has 10 years of work experience in project management and policy advice in social protection, nutrition and private sector development with KfW Development Bank. She also worked as an Economist for 5 years with the Ministry of Finance in Malawi.

Tia Palermo, Ph.D., is President of Policy Research Solutions (PRESTO) and an Associate Professor at the University at Buffalo (State University of New York). She is an affiliated researcher with the Transfer Project and was formerly a Social Policy Manager on Social Protection with UNICEF. She has 18 years of experience providing technical assistance and conducting research, including impact evaluations, on social protection, both with universities and the United Nations.

The opinions expressed in this blog belong to the authors and do not represent institutions with whom the authors are currently or formerly affiliated.

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