Social protection at a crossroads and rising poverty

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Credit: Frank Dejongh / UNICEF

HELSINKI, Aug 31, 2021 (IPS) – How can we ensure a resilient and inclusive recovery from COVID-19? How to meet the goal of eradicating poverty and hunger by 2030, while the pandemic is still ongoing?

I recently had the opportunity to participate as a keynote speaker at the UN DESA Expert Group Meeting with many distinguished speakers sharing their insights on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 despite the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.

One of the sessions focused on future paths for social protection. Participants assessed a set of policies that are gaining traction as a tool for recovery, but also for building more resilient, adaptive and inclusive social protection systems in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the number of social protection measures to help people cope with economic challenges. A total of 4,648 policy measures to address the economic and health challenges of the pandemic have been identified around the world.

Most of these are in the area of ​​social assistance (e.g. cash or in-kind transfers), with 955 policies receiving fiscal support from a government (UNESCWA, 2021).

However, many of these programs are temporary and it is not yet clear that they will become part of long-term social protection.

Annalena Oppel

Many of the challenges that gained greater visibility during the pandemic existed long before the pandemic began. As evidenced by the Sustainable Development Goals, the international community and policy makers continue to strive to eradicate poverty and hunger and establish good health and well-being.

Yet as many as 115 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2021 – a major setback in the progress already made. Therefore, the challenges that existed before can worsen if they are not resolved.

Social protection can be a tool to address multiple challenges, including poverty, food insecurity or inequality.

A major concern or point of debate is fiscal space or fiscal prioritization. In other words, how well can countries afford and sustain social protection programs.

This is an ongoing debate, with parties proposing various financing solutions, but the most sustainable is often seen as national revenue. A 2015 initiative showed that countries do not need to invest an unreasonable amount to implement social protection floors – a framework that encompasses basic income and health provisions. In 103 countries, the necessary resources would represent less than 5% of GDP.

There are then only 12 countries that would need international assistance to implement social protection floors, as the resources needed exceed 10% of GDP.

Already in 2012 – the same year the ILO proposed the Social Protection Floor (Recommendation 202), two UN experts proposed a Global Social Protection Fund (GFSP) for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to ensure financial feasibility and enable countries to put in place ambitious social measures. protective devices in place.

In light of COVID-19, there is growing momentum to revisit this proposal (for example, see here and here).

Another important aspect that was discussed during the expert forum is the availability of data. Data enables the development of evidence-based policies or the assessment of the design and feasibility of social policies.

Regarding fiscal capacity, the government revenue dataset (with a new version released in August 2021) can provide a valuable source on domestic revenue. It covers tax and revenue collection in 196 countries since the 1980s and can provide insight into how previous crises may have affected fiscal space.

Band-aids or pathways to sustainable development?

Overall, the GFSP and ongoing discussions provide examples of opportunities to advance social protection to address poverty and inequality.

Ongoing debates, political will, fiscal space and prioritization will show whether we are on the way to more adaptive, inclusive and sustainable social protection systems, or whether the current expansion of programs remain short-lived initiatives.

As we move forward, research can support this process by providing timely information and advice on the effectiveness of current programs in addressing persistent challenges, such as poverty, hunger and inequality.

At UNU-WIDER, the GRD project, under the Domestic Revenue Mobilization programme, works on different aspects of revenue collection, which can help developing countries make social protection a sustainable solution towards the sustainable development.

It is also important to better understand the current political climate to see if public support is aligned with an overall mission of building back better, in which social protection can play a crucial role.

*The United Nations University – World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) provides economic analysis and policy advice with the aim of promoting sustainable and equitable development for all. The institute began its activities more than 30 years ago in Helsinki, Finland, as the first research center of the United Nations University.

The author is an associate researcher at UNU-WIDER* and works on the Global Income Inequality Database and Government Revenue Dataset. She obtained her PhD from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor those of the program/project donors.

Joel C. Hicks