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Since 2000 two parallel global strategies for poverty reduction are being followed. On the one hand, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) changed in 1999 its ‘Enhanced Facility for Structural Adjustment’ into a ‘Facility for Growth and Poverty Reduction’ (FGPR) and asks poor countries to introduce a ‘PRSP’ (Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper) in order to receive concessional funds and debt relief. On the other hand, the UN (United Nations) Millennium Summit adopted a Declaration from which were taken –afterwards – eight so-called ‘MDGs’ (Millennium Development Goals) which became the guidelines for development cooperation.


More than ten years later and three years short of the MDG-deadline of 2015, both strategies seem to be failing. Poverty may have been reduced – and if China is included the first MDG of halving extreme poverty by 2015 will probably be met – but with severe geographical imbalances[1]. Furthermore, inequality is rising almost everywhere[2].

What will come next? The IMF already abandoned its ‘FGPR’ but continues to work with PRSPs. Most observers now admit they are not fundamentally different from structural adjustment policies and continue to be largely influenced by the Bretton Woods Institutions who seem to ignore their criteria of ownership and participation[3]. How to keep the ‘development’ and ‘cooperation’ narratives alive? More and more international organizations are abandoning their poverty discourse[4]. They now talk of ‘equity’ and even ‘inequality’ and ‘social protection’. UN organizations are openly promoting a ‘universal social protection’[5] . The ILO is ready to adopt at its next International Labour Conference (ILC) in June 2012 a recommendation on a ‘Social Protection Floor’. It looks as if this agenda will become the new objective after 2015 when the global ‘success’ of the MDGs will have been celebrated, possibly linked to ‘sustainable development goals’. It will be presented as the next progressive step towards more equality and progress. But will it be? Do the different proposals indeed go beyond poverty reduction, do they point towards a universal social protection as the UN organizations demand and do they abandon Washington Consensus policies?

In this article I want to analyze five documents, the ILO preparatory documents for the ILC, the Bachelet report (BACH), the European Development Report 2011 (EDR) and the ECLAC Report on inclusive social protection[6]. In section one I will briefly retrace the history of the social protection concept in development thinking. In section two I will analyze the five documents in terms of the objectives of a social protection agenda. In section three the scope of the agenda will be examined, whereas in section four the coverage of the social protection proposals will be analyzed. These different points should allow us to know what we can expect from this new agenda and whether it will re-connect with the older social progress and citizenship agenda.

Theoretically, this discourse analysis is based on the ‘order of discourse’ approach of Michel Foucault. It looks at how a new knowledge is being constructed leading – or not – to a new consensus that will guide policies in the coming years. This sociology of knowledge is less concerned with what is right or what is wrong, than with the way different agents are contributing to and influencing the meaning of concepts and discourses. Social protection, as we will see, is an ambivalent concept that can be very misleading if it is not defined and clarified. In this way discourses indeed become sites of power and of resistance.

I. Background

Social development and social protection

Today’s critics of development and cooperation mostly point to the focus on economic growth that, they say, has always been predominant in development thinking. This is not correct. On the one hand, because even if economic growth has indeed always been one of the objectives of development, it was not an end it itself. Growth was needed for capital accumulation which was needed for further industrialization and development. After 1960 the analysis pointed to a financing gap which had to be closed by growth and by development aid. Growth only became an end in itself with the Washington Consensus in the 1980s. On the other hand, the UN, where most of development theories originated, did have serious concerns about the social situation in ‘backward’ countries. It never talked about ‘poverty’ though and it is only at the beginning of the 1970s that the concept of ‘poverty’ was used by the UN and the World Bank. By that time however the ‘social development decade’[7] had begun. In 1969 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on development and social progress[8], which was a programme to develop welfare states following the western European model. The ILO discovered ‘basic needs’ and the informal sector. The World Bank discovered ‘poverty’ and McNamara promised that by 2000 extreme poverty would be eradicated. Very serious work was done at the UN searching for a ‘unified approach’ in which social and economic development could be integrated.

The abandonment of the Bretton Woods agreements by the United States in 1971 and the rise of oil prices after the Yom Kippur war put an end to all these beautiful plans. The West was faced with a serious crisis, oil exporting countries had ‘petrodollars’ which were borrowed by capital hungry developing countries and ten years later these countries were unable to service their debts. It was the beginning of the ‘lost decade’ for development and the introduction of structural adjustment programmes by the World Bank and the IMF. All dreams of social development were gone.

What did ‘social development’ mean? The UN resolution on development and social progress of 1969[9] gives an idea of how the international community saw the future. Social progress and development were based on human rights. They were linked to economic development, peace and security and the world was in need of a just social order. Social development has to be planned, according to the Declaration and will have to lead to the participation of all in productive and socially useful labor. Poverty has to be eliminated, as well as illiteracy, hunger and malnutrition. Health protection for the entire population has to be provided. There needed to be universal access to culture and free education for all. Housing and community services should be provided, as well as a comprehensive social security and social welfare services. Finally, the human environment had to be protected and improved. One might say, with all the other articles on peace, security and co-existence, anti-racism and anti-colonialism that this was typical UN-speak of the cold war. Certainly, but it also closely fitted into the economic development thinking of that time as it was worded in the resolutions on the ‘development decades’ in which poor countries asked for control on multinationals, transfer of technology, fair terms of trade, a share of the trade in services, and so on[10]. All these ideas disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s when a new development paradigm was introduced.

Structural adjustment had disastrous social consequences[11]. In 1990 the World Bank published its first major poverty report in which it was said that even if development had had wonderful results from 1960 to 1990, the new agenda should be poverty reduction[12]. UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) published its first Human Development Report and rescued some of the ideas of the ‘unified approach’[13]. They proposed a synthetic indicator of GDP, literacy and life expectancy. Both institutions proposed to focus on poverty and in the beginning of the 1990s there was a major production of poverty studies and of global poverty statistics.

However, the strategies to fight poverty were far from clear. It consisted of providing opportunities, i.e. the creation of human capital and increasing the capacity of the poor to take advantage of these opportunities, i.e. making use of the acquired human capital. For the World Bank, ‘providing opportunities’ meant encouraging economic growth that makes use of the labour force of the poor, while ‘increasing the capacity of the poor’ consists of providing basic social services such as education, health care and family planning. The UNDP saw things the other way round. Human development was making available basic social services in order to empower individuals to increase their human capital for productive, social and political gains within a context of economic growth. In addition to this dual approach, targeted social programmes were required to help those who cannot participate in the market. A safety net was needed to protect those who were exposed to shocks and to take care of the victims of the competitive struggle.

In the context of this article, three remarks can be made on this approach. First, it does not require any changes to the policies of the Washington consensus. Secondly, the World Bank as well as the UNDP stresses the impossibility and the undesirability of social security/social insurances for poor countries. For the World Bank, this could be a task for private markets, but certainly not for governments[14]. According to the UNDP, it was a ‘diagnostic error to think of poverty in terms of social protection and social expenditure’[15]. Thirdly, for both institutions, poverty is a multidimensional problem. Even if the World Bank had strongly developed its statistical instruments on income and consumption poverty, it has constantly weakened its definitions with ever more subjective approaches. In its second poverty report of 2000[16], poverty has become a matter of vulnerability, lack of voice and of empowerment. ‘The poor rarely speak of income’ is the more than surprising conclusion of a major participatory poverty research[17]. Income is a ‘stochastic phenomenon’[18] and so is easily ignored when talking about poverty reduction strategies.

In 1995 the UN organized its first ‘World Summit on Social Development’. The meeting adopted a Copenhagen Declaration and a Plan of Action with three equivalent chapters: on poverty, employment and social integration[19]. One year later however, the OECD proposed a new development programme: ‘Shaping the 21st century’[20], based on seven international development goals. It is these goals which five years later became the Millennium Development Goals to which was added goal number 8 with the commitments of rich countries.

The re-emergence of the ILO

The ILO was created after the First World War, at the same time that the Treaty of Versailles was signed. It was supposed to promote international trade and cooperation with social justice, as its founders stated that peace required social justice[21]. After the Second World War it was completed with the Philadelphia Declaration stating that ‘poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere’ and that ‘labour is not a commodity[22]. The ILO is the only tripartite international organization where governments, employers and trade unions work together to make international agreements, binding conventions and declarations.

With globalization gaining strength in the 1990s, the ILO slowly got marginalized. It became more and more difficult to reach agreements, its conventions were not ratified or not even respected anymore and the social future of the world was looking rather grim.

A first step was the adoption of the ‘Fundamental Rights at Work’, a compilation of basic conventions with the right to unionize and the right to collective agreements, the prohibition of forced labour and child labour and the prohibition of discrimination at work. Although these conventions were not ratified by all member states, they all agreed to respect them[23].

In 1999 the ILO adopted a ‘Decent Work’ agenda which consists of the fundamental rights at work, social protection, social dialogue and employment[24]. In a way, this agenda encompasses most of the ILO’s normative instruments relating to various aspects of work, social protection and working conditions.

In 2001 the ILO created a World Commission to look at the ‘Social Dimension of Globalization’. This led to a Report in 2004 on ‘A fair globalization: Creating opportunities for all’ in which it was said that ‘a minimum level of social protection needs to be accepted and undisputed as part of the socio-economic floor of the global economy’[25].

In 2001 the ILC had also given the highest priority to policies and initiatives that could bring social security to those not covered by existing schemes. Following this, the ILO launched in 2003 a global campaign on social security and coverage for all. In 2008 the ILC adopted a Declaration on Social Justice for a fair globalization’.[26]

With these initiatives and new programmes of cooperation with the World Bank as well as with UNDP and the WTO (World Trade Organization), the ILO was back at the table and it even looked as if it was going to be able to implement, if not all, at least a major part of its old agenda. After all, it already had major instruments to do what was recommended: an international convention on social security (102/1952) and two important recommendations on income security and medical care (67 and 69 of 1944), along with a six other conventions[27].

The World Bank agenda

As we shall see in the next section, the current proposals for a social protection floor may not be an exclusive consequence of these ILO steps and may not necessarily follow its main logic. Many other international organizations also play a role and may have more political influence than the ILO.

As the poverty reduction agenda of the World Bank was totally compatible with the Washington Consensus policies and in no way linked to an agenda for universal social protection or social security, a brief reference to the World Bank agenda may be useful.

At the end of the 1990s, after the crisis in Russia and South-East Asia, the G-7 asked the World Bank to reflect on some ‘social principles’ and ‘good practices’ for social policies. Traditional social protection with social security could not be the answer, since, according to the World Bank, they did not help the poor but were associated to ‘vested interests’, they were too expensive and hindered growth[28].

The answer of the World Bank was a scheme for risk management[29]. Everyone is faced with the same risks in this world, according to the authors, but the poor are more vulnerable to them since they do not have the instruments to cope with risks. This explains why they never choose high risk/high return activities.

Social protection, according to the authors, was to be defined as ‘public measures aimed at helping individuals, families and collectivities in order to manage risks and to help extremely poor people’. Social protection was a safety net and a springboard, it should be considered as an investment. It was necessary in order to enhance welfare and reduce vulnerability without redistributing incomes, in order to promote growth and encourage poor people to shift to more profitable activities, and finally in order to reduce poverty. Poverty reduction was only one element of social protection which was only one element of risk management.

According to this scheme risks can be prevented (though very rarely), mitigated or have to be coped with. This can be done informally, by the market or by the State. Income redistribution is possible as a consequence of social protection, but is explicitly excluded as an objective, in the same way as income transfers. These belong to social security which eliminates risks and changes the behavior of people. These disincentives should at all costs be avoided, according to the World Bank.

This new version of social protection is totally at the service of the economy then. It is not meant to protect incomes, which become a responsibility of poor people themselves, but only wants to improve the capacity of people to create the income themselves. Guaranteeing incomes, which has always been the main objective of social security, is thus abandoned.

The Social Protection Floor

The idea of a ‘social protection floor’ (SPF) was first launched at the beginning of the current economic and financial crisis, in a document of the UN System CEB (Chief Executive Board) for Coordination, looking at the impact of the crisis on the work of the UN system[30]. This SPF was directly linked to the crisis and was meant to protect people during the crisis and thereafter. It consisted of a) services – geographical and financial access to essential public services (water and sanitation, health and education) and b) transfers: a basic set of essential social transfers in cash and in kind, paid to the poor and vulnerable to provide a minimum income security and access to services, including health care.

Since this very much looks like poverty reduction, the idea was taken up by the independent expert for poverty of the Human Rights Council[31]. It was confirmed in the ILO Global Jobs Pact of 2009[32] and, as has been said already, a formal Recommendation to be adopted by the ILC in June 2012 is now in the making.

II. The objectives of social protection

Social rights and citizenship

According to T.H. Marshall[33], social and economic rights came about as from the end of the 19th century, after civil rights (18th century) and political rights (19th century). It had become obvious that civil and political citizenship and equality were meaningless when economic inequality hindered people from exercising their rights. As from the second half of the 19th century equality did indeed become a political issue. Another element in the emergence of the welfare states was the changing perspective on risks. The industrialization process made it impossible to consider accidents and illnesses as purely individual phenomena. They were linked to the collective process of the changing economy and had to be treated as such[34]. Many other elements played a role in the emergence of the welfare states, social struggles as well as the needs of industry and State interests. But the trend was clear. After the Second World War, in all industrialized countries, welfare states were fully developed. Economic and social rights were integrated in the new Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). They were an integral part of citizenship. The first objective of social security became the guaranteeing of income in case of economic stress, accident, illness or disability, and old age[35].

The reference to citizenship and human rights is present in all documents on SPF (Social Protection Floor) though in varying degrees.

It is about ‘the delivering on the promise of the UDHR’ (p.XXII) says BACH, though the report immediately adds that it is also about adapting the skills of workers in order to overcome constraints blocking full participation in a changing economic and social environment. It is also about stabilizing aggregate demand and in this sense it becomes a win-win investment. The ILC of 2011 added an objective to what had already been mentioned by CEB: SPF is about the need to promote economic activity and entrepreneurship (p. 10).

SPF is about the fundamental principle of social justice and especially the universal right of everyone to social security and an adequate standard of living (BACH p. XXIV, 9). It is about achieving key human rights, as they were also made explicit in the ILO Declaration of Philadelphia. It is embedded in economic and social rights and the Human Rights Council will develop guiding principles in the framework of fighting extreme poverty (p. 34). It is not a form of charity, but a right (p. 61)

Linked to this it is obvious that ‘public agencies have a leading role in the development of social protection floor institutions’ (xxviii) in order to see to it that ‘rights and entitlements fit with development objectives’. Governments have the responsibility to formulate and guide implementation of SPF whereas social partners and multiple stakeholders are engaged in managing delivery (p. 82).

The link to human rights is explicit, then, though the other objectives of the SPF are dwelled on much more extensively. It can contribute to demographic change (p. XXV), it is a countercyclical stabilizer (XXV, 6, 41, 52), il allows to unlock productive capacity (xxix, 6, 7, 11, 42), it contributes to labour productivity (p. 3), it offers a solid foundation for resilient forms of growth and it fosters macro-economic stability (p. 6), it promotes productive economic activity and entrepreneurship (p. 10), it encourages labour market participation (p. 11).

It relieves people from the fear of poverty and insecurity (p. XXIX, 2) and it enhances social cohesion while minimizing social unrest (p. 91).

The ILO itself also stresses the importance of human rights, and sees social security as a human need, a social and an economic necessity (ILO1, §5; ILO2 p. 5, 29). Social security is universally recognized as a fundamental human right and an essential component of social and economic development (ILO2, p. 8). It is in order to make this right a reality for everyone that a new recommendation is needed (ILO2, p. 39).

Other objectives are mentioned as well, but with a minor focus: not only does social security prevent and reduce poverty and inequality and promote social inclusion and dignity, it is also an economic necessity: it enhances productivity, employability and supports economic development. It is an economic and social stabilizer and fosters recovery (ILO2, p. 5). Sustainable social security systems are a key element in promoting collective economic growth with equity (ILO1, §4).

Whereas the active involvement of all stakeholders is needed, SPF is a ‘general responsibility of the State’, it has to be established under domestic law as a responsibility of public authorities (ILO1, §23; ILO2, p. 42). NGOs do not meet the criteria of providing a minimum level of social protection (ILO2, p. 31). This does not mean they have no role to play, but it is the State who bears overall responsibility for adequate social protection of its population (ILO2, p. 44). The range, type and level of benefits have to remain a responsibility of the States (ILO2, p. 51). ‘The need to embed national SPF as a coherent comprehensive and coordinated set of nationally defined basic social security guarantees into a wider national social protection extension strategy which in turn should be an integral part of wider national development frameworks’ (ILO2, p. 51).

Associated to these State responsibilities is the focus the ILO puts on the universal character of social protection (ILO2, p. 15, 18) Nevertheless, universal protection should be stated as a clear objective that may have to be achieved progressively’ (ILO2, p. 19). SPFs have to be built within comprehensive social security systems (ILO1, §31)

In the European document (EDR) the right to social protection ( 1, 20, 22,30, 33) is immediately linked to growth and MDGs (p. 1). Social protection can play a role in tackling poverty, reducing the impact of shock, promoting sustainable growth and inclusive development (foreword). Well-designed social protection can foster market-based solutions, such as micro-financial activities (p. 2). It is a right, and this is ‘too often overlooked’ (p. 2, 7), but it can also mitigate risks without producing significant distortion or disincentives (p. 2, 4,).

Whereas the focus is on public actions – governments and other public agencies – it must be possible to support, facilitate of even just create space or permit private and community-based actions for social protection (p. 20, 33). SPF strengthens the state-citizen contract (p. 20), it allows the State to bolster its legitimacy. ‘Social protection is concerned with (re)establishing and (re)negotiating the social contract between the State and its citizens, which is crucial for the State’s legitimacy’ (p.51). The political function of social protection is to provide social balance (p. 51).

Social protection can be a push towards universally provided support in the sense that it applies to all citizens who meet the eligibility criteria … a well-defined ‘category’ of citizens (p. 75).

Whereas ‘we, Europeans, are familiar with the power of social protection and solidarity’ (foreword), ‘an excessively Euro-centric perspective should be eschewed’ (p. 113).

ECLAC’s document is very different in that it poses as its unique objective to achieve universal rights. It is the great challenge of the 21st century to create inclusive, egalitarian societies with full respect for a framework of rights (foreword). It speaks of citizen’s rights and universal coverage, though it does not exclude targeting. Targeting can be an instrument while universalism is the end (foreword, p. 33, 129). The focus on rights is the criterion used to assess existing systems (p. 75).

ECLAC aims to go even further than the Social Development commission of the UN which looks beyond poverty, since it also wants to promote decent work (p. 18).

The main function of social protection is to guarantee income security in order to live in dignity with a possibility of access to social services and decent work (p. 145).

Markets, families, social organizations and communities can all play a part in providing social protection, but the main responsibility is for the State, more particularly for guaranteeing their availability (p. 19, 33, 45, 156).

III. The scope of SPF

In the preface to the BACH document, it is stated that SPF is about the extension of social protection coverage. The foreword refers to the 2004 report of the World Commission on Globalization which asks for a ‘minimum level of social protection … to be accepted and undisputed as part of a social-economic floor of the global economy’. It also refers to the two-dimensional strategy of the ILO and the global campaign for ‘Social Security for All’ ‘aiming at achieving universal coverage of the population with at least minimum levels of protection (horizontal dimension) and progressively ensuring higher levels of protection (vertical dimension) (p. XI, XXII). For the SPF, BACH takes the definition and the guarantees mentioned by the UN (XXII).

The SPF is about moving faster in poverty reduction and social exclusion and therefore it is related to the decent work agenda, which will make it possible to fight poverty, deprivation and inequality. In order to be really effective there will be a need to take the next step of the vertical dimension (XXIV). Because SPF is not an alternative, but a complement to social security, it is a component of a comprehensive and pluralistic social protection system (XXVIII). SPF will be the first step towards higher levels of protection, and is not meant to weaken the protection levels but to fill the coverage gaps (p. 11). SPF cannot be compared to safety nets, since these were residual to economic development and only temporary (p. 12). SPF will be a full and permanent component of a development strategy for inclusive development (p. 12).

The ILO documents want to give meaningful guidance to member states in building SPFs within comprehensive social security systems (ILO1, § 31; ILO2, p. 1).

What a ‘minimum’ income security, and what ‘essential’ health care and ‘adequate’ social security means is left to the determination of member states (ILO1, § 31, ILO2, p. 3).

It refers to its Committee of Experts who stated that ‘the task of globalizing social security requires the ILO to complement the current set of up-to-date standards with a new high impact instrument embedding social security in a new development policy paradigm’(ILO2, p. 7) .

Both dimensions of the new strategy are of equal importance and should be pursued simultaneously when possible (ILO2, p. 7). The SPF instrument should also support a modern development strategy that is based on a simultaneous pursuit of economic and social development through poverty reduction, inequality and ill-health (ILO2, p. 39).

ILO mentions explicitly the types of benefits or guarantees which should be provided under national SPF: ‘nationally defined minimum levels of income security during childhood, working age, old age and affordable access to health care’ (ILO1, § A6, ILO2, p. 21). This is the core content, say the authors, of general elements of the right to social security, according to UDHR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

There is a need to embed national SPF as a coherent, comprehensive and coordinated set of nationally defined basic social security guarantees into a wider national social protection extension strategy which in turn should be an integral part of wider national development frameworks (ILO2, p. 51). SPF policies should give access to essential health care and income security (ILO1, § 9).

EDR document is less explicit and more economically oriented – SPF should provide the human capital base for future growth (p. 2).

Social protection is seen as a prelude for a paradigm shift, beyond safety nets and poverty reduction to a wider social development vision, though for the moment this is not on the agenda (p. 26).

Some elements of the definition are stressed again: it is about social insurance, social assistance, social inclusion, securing legal rights and entitlements and access to insurance markets (p. 30).

The primary objective though is to tackle poverty and promote growth (p. 30)

Not many details are added, maybe because of the statement that social protection must emerge from domestic policy processes’ (p.98).

For ECLAC social protection has to do with guarantees for citizens, it clearly goes beyond poverty reduction (p. 45).

Many references are made to the newest policies of Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT): these are aimed at short term income plus long term human capital, but they remain very limited in scope (p. 96). Nevertheless, for ECLAC, CCTs can be a door that gives access to social protection (167).

Education, housing and health policies are part of social protection. Social promotion on the other hand is concerned with all policies aiming at the development of human capacities, human capital and also labour mediation, technical assistance, and so on. In fact it concerns all policies linked to the improvement of the standard of living based on better productivity and autonomously generated income (p. 125).

The major function of social protection is to guarantee sufficient income for a life in dignity, it should give access to social services and promote decent work.

IV. The coverage of the social protection floor

It was made clear from the preceding points that SPF is mainly for the poor and vulnerable which necessarily implies a problem of identifying them, and thus of targeting, however broad this may be interpreted. Even if the guarantees are said to be universal, the benefits will only go to selected groups.

It is interesting however to see how ECLAC combines targeting as an instrument with universality as the objective. It explains that universalism does not mean giving everyone exactly the same, but – with an implicit reference to Amartya Sen – giving in function of the needs. In this sense targeting becomes fully acceptable.

BACH speaks of universal rights for everyone, though the SPF benefits are clearly for the poor (p. 9). It does refer to a phased extension of coverage with eventually the aim of full coverage, in a gradual way (p. 66). It is not clear however if this ‘full coverage’ refers to all the poor or to the whole of the population.

BACH mentions the problems which can arise with targeting (p. 81): it may create stigma and disincentives, many of the poor can be missed … The best way to avoid targeting is to gradually expand SPF to social security.

ILO also claims the universality of the objective and therefore SPF is linked to its social security strategy. But it implies nevertheless targeting with all problems this may imply. It sticks to its universal approach to social security and states this is still pertinent, though limited in means. It refers to its conventions and recommendations (ILO2, p. 15) but also states there is but a limited ability to make the right to social security a reality for everyone. It also states explicitly that universal extension requires non-contributive systems (ILO2, p. 18). SPF should focus on the extension of coverage to wider groups of people (ILO1, § A2).

EDR writes extensively on the choice, the advantages and the problems of targeting and universalism (p. 44). A greater share of programme benefits go to the poor with targeting, though it admits there is a tension with the question of rights. In fact, there seems to be a rather awkward vision on ‘universality’ in that EDR speaks of ‘all citizens who meet the eligibility criteria … a well defined category of citizens’ (p. 75).

Finally, it has to be mentioned that even if the CEB document talked about ‘public services’, as does ECLAC, other documents mainly speak about ‘social services’. There seems to be no perspective on the decommodification of these services. Even if the State is responsible for SPF, these services can remain or become privatized, as it is stressed that the income guarantee is meant to give access to insurance markets (EDR, p. 30). Furthermore, the only services that are referred to are health care and education, whereas the many other services mentioned in the ICESCR (food, clothing, housing, culture …) are not referred to.

V. Conclusion

The only institution which is talking of social protection as an exclusive matter of citizenship and rights is ECLAC. All the others see social protection as having also an explicit economic function, even if the rights dimension is recognized. Especially BACH and EDR see social protection as an economic investment in view of more growth, productivity and stability. Of course, this could lead to both a Keynesian approach of reciprocal strengthening of the economic and social dimensions, but also to a more neoliberal interpretation of social protection in which this protection is at the service of the market. The reference to ‘investments’ - which points to the need of a return on investment – is not encouraging. In what direction the SPF will evolve depends on local relations of power. It is clear that the ILO more particularly has to reach a consensus with its different stakeholders and words do not determine things. However, discourses do create ‘truths’ which in turn influence practice.

As SPF is meant for the poor, it does not go beyond poverty reduction, even if the ILO stresses its link with the social security extension campaign. But the divergent references to ‘universalism’ leave some doubts. It is not always clear whether ‘universalism’ refers to the whole population, to all the poor or to all the deserving poor.

This being said, the SPF has some very important advantages compared to the existing poverty reduction policies:

- It is clearly rights-based, in spite of all economic references. It has a link with a broader social security agenda and with the decent work agenda. It also refers then to the fundamental rights at work. This has never been the case before with the MDGs or the PRSPs.

- It has an income dimension, which is extremely important in the current discourse environment on poverty. The income dimension of poverty has too often been forgotten because of the focus on so-called ‘multidimensionality’. Of course, the existing CCTs and social pensions can hardly be seen as being sufficient for a life in dignity, but as ECLAC stresses, they can open the door for social protection. These measures deserve full support.

- SPF is meant to be a permanent mechanism, which is also new compared to the temporary safety nets and other springboards promoted by the World Bank.

Nevertheless, serious doubts and questions remain. I should like to mention four of them.

First, there is a serious risk of terminological confusion. The Social Protection Floor does not go beyond poverty reduction and it is not a ‘universal social protection’. As the ILO itself points out ‘the terms social protection and social security are used in various and not always consistent ways, differing widely across countries and international organizations, and also across time[36]. In some contexts social protection is broader than social security and includes social assistance and public services. In other contexts it is social security which is the broader concept. It is clear however that in this case, being limited to the poor, SPF looks like a rights-based social assistance programme with the potential of being extended, in the long term, to a universal social security programme. This terminological confusion can lead to many divergent interpretations and gives the SPF an aura it maybe does not deserve. The discourses examined in this article create confusion by playing with words like ‘universalism’ which is then qualified by being only valid for the poor or only for the guarantees. They create confusion by talking of ‘social protection floorS’, in plural, leading to doubts on whether a social pension, e.g., may be enough to be considered a ‘social protection floor’.

Secondly, the question remains what the advantages for the ILO itself can be. SPF clearly is an improvement compared to the MDGs of the UN and the PRSPs of IMF and World Bank. But the ILO already has a basic convention on social security and several recommendations. It did not need this new initiative, except for the extension to all people instead of all workers. True, these texts are not well respected, but how to convince governments and business to respect the new ones? Will they not prefer to keep to the minimal requirements and forget the second dimension of the strategy? In fact, since 1966 and the adoption of the ICESCR the narrative is on gradualism in function of the development of nations. In reality, since the introduction of Washington Consensus policies in the 1980s, there have been more regressive steps than progressive ones. What can guarantee this will now change? It is a new promise of the international community, which should certainly not be underestimated, though the former non kept promise of the MDGs should make us cautious. SPF may take the place of the MDGs as from 2015, but if it is only a new start with a new promise and without concrete commitments, civil society will strengthen its resistance and search for other ways to claim its rights and its dignity.

Thirdly, several documents point to the fact that the distinction between the formal and the informal sector is in fact outdated. There are good arguments for such a statement, since the grey zone between the two is getting larger and larger. Too many people do not enjoy their social and/or economic rights, are able to avoid taxes, have temporary or seasonal jobs … This makes it indeed necessary to introduce non-contributive social protection/assistance mechanisms in order to arrive at real universal coverage. However, this growing ‘precariat’[37] can hardly be accepted as a given. Efforts to formalize the huge informal sector should continue with the decent work agenda, which is only recognized in ILO1. Non-contributive protection systems can be no excuse to further weaken the contributive systems with their implicit role for social partners. It is extremely important then to permanently confirm the link with the universal social security objective in order to preserve this collective agenda with its organic solidarity.

Fourthly and finally, the taking into account of the income dimension is extremely positive. However it should not be used in order to make all essential social services into commodities that have to be paid for. Public services remain extremely important for the preservation of life and social life, especially in the current situation where climate change risks can badly hurt poor people and poor communities. Private services will never be able to sufficiently protect them. If poor people get cash benefits it should not be, as EDR states, in order to give access to social services, but in order to give them the right to life and dignity. Decommodified public services are a major contribution to it.

In short, however positively the plans for a Social Protection Floor can be assessed, what the documents do not tell us should not be ignored. They do not speak of a redistribution of incomes. They do not speak of a ‘transformative’ agenda in the way the UN organizations do, meaning that development has to put an end to dual societies and has to lead to substantial societal change. There is no proposal to change the economic paradigm, away from productivism and an exclusively growth-oriented economy, without taking into account the ecological constraints. If the SPF is limited to its minimal requirements, it will be compatible with Washington Consensus policies. And that means the impoverishment processes will not be stopped.

There are no reasons or arguments to have doubts on the positive intentions of the ILO. But the importance of discourse analysis is not only to look at the explicit and implicit intentions of their authors and thus examine the practices to which they can lead in the future, but also to look at the margins they create for divergent interpretations and practices. According to Foucault, changes always originate at the margins. In the same way as the ILO itself builds on its former work, the new discourse is already taken by other organizations to interpret its new margins in divergent ways. The discourse of ECLAC and EDR are two opposite examples of where this may lead to. All depends then on the context and the power relations within which the social protection floor has to be implemented.

Therefore, the plans for a Social Protection Floor deserve to be promoted by progressive governments and civil society. They are an improvement of the current and failed poverty reduction policies. If and how they will be implemented will depend on the political willingness of governments and on the strength of social movements to put pressure on them. Civil society organizations should promote this agenda but, at the same time, they should take a step forward and push for the second, vertical step of full coverage for all with social security. They should also reflect on a re-conceptualization of ‘social protection’ in light of the urgently needed economic, ecological and social changes. A new grand narrative that only repeats promises of the past that have never been met will not help. The SPF will either become the threshold on which a really universal social protection system can be built, or it will remain an improved poverty reduction within the framework of neoliberal policies.



[1] United Nations, MDG Report 2010, New York, United Nations, 2010; World Bank, MDG Monitoring Report. MDGs after the Crisis, Washington, The World Bank, 2010.

[2] OECD, ‘An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries. Main Findings’ and ‘Special Focus: Inequality in Emerging Economies’ in Divided We Stand. Why Inequality Keeps Rising, Paris, OECD, 2011.

[3] IMF, The IMF and Aid to Subsaharan Africa, Evaluation Report IEO, Washington, IMF, 2007; UNRISD, Combating Poverty and Inequality. Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics, Geneva, UNRISD, 2010, p. 3.

[4] See the World Bank World Development Reports 2011 and 2012, as well as UNDP’s Human Development Report of 2011, not speaking about poverty anymore …

[5] UNRISD, 2010, op. Cit., United Nations, Re-Thinking Poverty, Report on the World Social Situation 2010, New York, United Nations, 2010; United Nations, World Economic and Social Survey 2010, New York, United Nations, 2010; CEPAL, Protección social inclusiva en América latina, Santiago, CEPAL, 2011.

[6] ILO, Social Protection Floor for a Fair and Inclusive Globalization, Report of the Advisory Group chaired by Michelle Bachelet, Geneva, 2011 (referred to as ‘BACH’); ILO, Resolution concerning the recurrent discussion on social protection (social security), adopted by the ILC at its 100th session (June 2011) (ILO1); ILO, Social Protection Floors for social justice and a fair Globalization, Report IV, document for the ILC2012, 101st session (ILO2); European Commission, Social Protection for Inclusive Development, European Development Report 2010, Brussels 2011 (EDR); CEPAL, Protección social inclusiva in América latina, Santiago, 2011 (ECLAC).

[7] Arndt, H.W., Economic Development. The History of an Idea, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

[8] United Nations, Declaration on Social Progress and Development, Resolution G.A. 2542 (XXIV), 11 December 1969.

[9] Id.

[10] See more particularly the two resolutions on the two first decades: 1710 (XV1) of 19 December 1961 and 2626 (XXV) of 24 October 1070.

[11] Cornia, G.A. et al., Adjustment with a Human Face. Protecting the Vulnerable and Promoting Growth. A study by Unicef, New York, Oxford University Press, 1987.

[12] World Bank, World Development Report 1990. Poverty, Washington, The World Bank, 1990.

[13] UNDP, Human Development Report 1990, New York, United Nations, 1990.

[14] World Bank, World Development Report 1997, Washington, The World Bank, 1997.

[15] PNUD, Vaincre la pauvreté humaine, New York, UNDP, 2000, p. 8, 42.

[16] World Bank, World Development Report 2000/2001. Attacking Poverty, Washington, The World Bank, 2000.

[17] Narayan, D. et al., Voices of the Poor. Crying out for Change, Washington, The World Bank, 2000.

[18] Holzmann & Jorgensen, Gestion du risque social: cadre théorique de la protection sociale, Document de travail 006 sur la protection sociale, World Bank, 2000.

[19] United Nations, Report on the World Summit on Social Development, Copenhagen, Doc. A/CONF.166/9.

[20] OECD, Development Cooperation. Efforts and Policies of the Members of the Development Assistance Committee, Paris, OECD, 1996.

[21] ILO Constitution, www.ilo.org.

[22] ILO Declaration of Philadelphia, art. 1a and 1c, www.ilo.org.

[23] ILO, Declaration of the ILO concerning Principles and Rights at Work, adopted at the ILC of 1998.

[24] ILC, Decent Work, Report of the Director-General, 87th session, Geneva, June 1999.

[25] ILO, Report of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, Geneva, 2004, p. 110.

[26] ILO, Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, adopted at the ILC of June 2008.

[27] Convention 102 of 1952 on the minimum standards for social security; Recommendation 67 of 1944 on income security; Recommendation 69 of 1944 on medical care; for other documents see ILO, 2011, op. cit., p. 10.

[28] For a full analysis of the World Bank Discourse, see Mestrum, F., Mondialisation et Pauvreté, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002.

[29] Holzmann & Jorgensen, 2000, op. cit.

[30] UN System Chief Executive Board for Coordination, The Global Financial Crisis and its impact on the Work of the UN system, New York, United Nations, 2009.

[31] United Nations, Report of the Independent Expert on the Question of Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, on the draft guiding principles on extreme poverty and Human rights, Human Rights Council, 15th session, doc. A/HRC/15/41.

[32] ILO, Global Jobs Pact, 2009.

[33] Marshall, T.H., Class, Citizenship and Social Development, New York, Doubleday & Company, 1964.

[34] Ewald, F., L’Etat-Providence, Paris, Grasset, 1986.

[35] ILO, Declaration of Philadelphia, art. 3f.

[36] ILO Social Security Report 2010/2011

[37] Standing, G., The Precariat. The new dangerous class, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

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