Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When one becomes dependent on fears of dependency

Social protection is, once again, becoming increasingly popular as a policy of sustainable international development. However, it still suffers from fears of dependency. Too often, policy makers are too dependent upon their fear of dependency.

Social protection is quickly becoming recognised as one of the most critical aspects of sustainable international development by those engaged in supporting poor countries and emerging markets to develop. Social protection - a dimension of the welfare state - gives support to people in need. Sounds broad? That's because it is. It can include everything from cash transfers to food support to waiving education fees. Even elements of corporate social responsibility could be seen as part of social protection (protecting society from abject poverty as can be brought on by the market forces and global changes) - though usually, social protection refers to government programmes. It generally includes social insurance, social assistance and labour market regulation. The basics of social protection form the basics of the UK's National Health System and the US's welfare-to-work programming.

Does social protection work? Sometimes. It needs to be well targeted, which requires a high level of knowledge of local contexts - something governments don't always have, much less donor agencies working in international development. During financial crises, those governments that have decent social protection programmes overall fare better, their people do not go into poverty as deeply or for so long, and the overall economy can improve faster. It also means that in times of crises, some structure already exists - the government does not have to start from scratch just as the world seems to be tumbling around it -it just strengthens and adds greater resources to what it already has.

Recently, social protection has become concerned not only with providing a more or less stable safety net, but a safety net that bounces back - so that when you land on it, you can get thrown back up to the next income level (hopefully above the minimal poverty line). That means social protection is becoming increasingly linked to overall economic growth agendas, and not simply seen as a 'net' that catches the 'poor' and the 'fallen'. Some call this process of moving from dependence to independence 'graduation'. I think of it as one of the core aspects of sustainable development. It's also becoming increasingly important for adaption to climate change - though to distinguish it from 'normal' social protection, it is referred to as 'Adaptive social protection'. Is there much difference? For people on the ground, probably not. For donors concerned with proving the 'additionality' of climate change funding - indeed it does!

But there is a great fear that governments have - a fear of dependency. They fear that people will just live on the social protection and not work to improve their condition on their own. And while there are many stories of such people, and I'm sure it is an element of it, the evidence suggests that, overall, people do try make an effort to move from dependence to independence. But the fear is so strong that governments are reluctant to put in place long term social protection policies. Perhaps it is the lingerings of Thatcher and Reagan that withdrew long term state support. Whatever the reason, the fear of dependency seems to outweigh the fear of deep poverty.

Certainly, social protection does need to be long term. If social protection is going to be linked to poverty reduction - and not just keeping people away from absolute desolute conditions - it needs to be part of a longer-term development which, I would argue, needs to be focused on keeping people out of poverty (aka pro-poor growth) - that's the only way forward for long term sustainable development.

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