The vital role of social protection in the fight against inequality

Winnie Byanyima

Winnie Byanyima is the Executive Director of Oxfam International. ©Oxfam International

When I talk about schools and hospitals in the fight against poverty and inequality, people generally nod in agreement. They may have different ideas about how they should be run and paid for, but we agree on the power of health and the power of education.

But when we talk about social protection there is much greater confusion:  confusion created by competing political ideologies, differing economic demands, by misunderstanding about what it is, what it can do and who should be driving it.

This post originally appeared on the ILO Social Protection Website. You can read the full version there.

Somewhere in this tangle we are missing a focus on the women, men and families who need this support—people who are trying to build their lives in a world where the gap between rich and poor is rapidly increasing.

In January this year Oxfam released analysis which showed that the richest 80 people in the world hold the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population put together and that soon the 1 per cent will own the same wealth as the rest of humanity combined.

More schools and hospitals alone will not redress this imbalance. We have to address the structural causes of inequality that see only some—be they corporations, politicians, or local chiefs—benefit from the current political and economic structures.

Universal social protection floors are one of several concrete steps that governments and others can take in order to close the growing gap between the rich and poor. Photo: flickr/epSos .de

Universal social protection floors are one of several concrete steps that governments and others can take in order to close the growing gap between the rich and poor. Photo: flickr/epSos .de

In the face of this, Oxfam recognizes the significance of social protection as a vital mechanism to reallocate wealth from rich to poor. Social protection doesn’t resolve people’s—often women’s—lack of economic access, but it does compensate people in the face of an unjust, unequal system.

Many others also recognize the importance of social protection—in fact, the world has done just that in the form of Sustainable Development Goal target 1.3: “Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable.”

To properly deliver social protection, we need taxes from the better off to fund services and transfers which compensate those without sufficient income.

What to do and for whom?

Working out how to do social protection well is a more complex task.

It is interesting to consider poverty and vulnerability as pertaining to two groups. On the one hand are people who need help at a particular point in time: for example children, those on maternity or paternity leave, those with severe disabilities, and the elderly. These are stages of life that we all go through—so using social protection to meet the needs of these people means we can support a great number of those in poverty. On the other hand are people who are vulnerable to shocks at any stage of their life. They are poor because of social, political and economic dynamics in society and not because of their position along the life cycle.

A solution to the inequality crisis is achievable—and we need to embrace social protection and progressive taxation to help us get there.

This might include women in some communities, smallholder farmers without land titles, those excluded from society because of caste, or birth, or location. A small shock can spiral these households downwards—for example a seasonal flood might wash away the house or harvest; illness and high medical bills can lead to indebtedness to moneylenders.

Emergency aid or national safety net programmes provide assistance for a few months during bad times. But unfortunately, this sort of response is vulnerable to ad hoc funding dependent on donor whims and public action.

Inter-linkages and a way forward

Both forms of social protection are vital in a world of increasing inequality and increasing humanitarian need. Doing development demands support for both.

But at a time when the global economic downturn has led to a tightening of social welfare budgets in the West, politicians are under pressure from some quarters to reduce their financing of welfare in other countries.

This is where the ILO has such an important role to play—it encompasses national movements and workers’ unions, both of which can show solidarity and lobby for similar rights across borders. A welcome additional step would be to see the construction of national social protection floors and systems supported by an international fund.

Finally, in the focus on formal government or NGO programmes, we risk forgetting that the community is the first to respond to any type of need. All delivery needs to work with communities, to build up and support these informal structures.

A solution to the inequality crisis is achievable—and we need to embrace social protection and progressive taxation to help us get there.

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