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Social protection for all: From large-scale poverty to decent societies

The global recession has increased unemployment and poverty across the world. A new publication "Building decent societies", edited by Peter Townsend, makes the case for the development of comprehensive social security systems in all countries, notwithstanding their levels of wealth, as a measure towards alleviating desperate conditions of poverty, the reversing growing inequality and encouraging economic growth. ILO Online provides questions and answers on social security and our societies today.

Article | 02 September 2009

What is the relevance of Building decent societies to the financial and economic crisis?

Building decent societies addresses the question of whether and how social protection systems in general, and social security in particular, should be nearer the top of the global policy agenda. The book suggests that the programme for recovery from the 2009 global financial and economic crisis must include a guarantee of a minimum level of social security for all; for now, even though social security is a fundamental right, and despite international efforts to promote it, huge sections of the world’s population still lack any form of social security. Building decent societies examines historical and contemporary developments in social protection in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and in developing countries in the light of the current financial and economic crisis and looks at new international strategies to establish social security, reduce poverty and contribute to international economic and social development.

What is the importance of building social security into decent societies?

One of the central themes in Building decent societies is that the establishment of universal social security systems has been a cornerstone of the OECD countries’ successful economic and social development and has contributed to their achievements in reducing poverty and fostering social inclusion. Up until the last decade, attempts to counter large-scale extreme poverty did not focus on the right to social security and an adequate standard of living. However, universal social security systems are increasingly recognized to have enormous potential for low-income countries.

What are the main arguments of Building decent societies?

While social security achieves demonstrable effects in reducing poverty, its effects on economic growth are still debated. However, and particularly in the context of the current financial and economic crisis, the question of establishing social protection systems in low-income countries is an important one. Such systems are not merely a luxury for countries which can afford them, but a buffer against economic shocks and growing poverty, as well as an aid to productive economic activity. Building decent societies examines and breaks down the myths surrounding the relationship between social protection and economic performance and examines both high- and low-income countries around the world to see what lessons can be learned from the absence and the establishment of social security systems such as child benefit and health systems.

Is the OECD model applicable to less developed countries?

OECD countries base their principal models of social security on the acceptance that social security is a means to modernization and sustainable growth, as well as a key factor in reducing domestic poverty. Of course, mature OECD models cannot simply be transferred en bloc, but some of the developmental patterns may be emulated, starting from modest levels of protection in the early phases of development and building successively higher levels of protection as economies mature. If such patterns were to be adopted by low-income countries, the performance of the global economy, as well as the individual fiscal space and political priorities of each country, would still determine the pace of social security development for the majority of the population. In many developing countries, regressive or even elitist programmes still prevail, and social security systems are desperately under-resourced and diverse.

How do we overcome some of the challenges to establishing social security?

Global partnerships between national governments, international donors and NGOs could work effectively to lift certain constraints; the challenge is to establish social security systems that take into account the lack of coherent or comprehensive social assistance policies in poorer countries. To achieve this goal, low-income and middle-income countries may require some assistance. European models of welfare, while they may never be fully emulated, provide a useful reference for welfare state reformers in developing countries. The key is to create a society through political will and vision where people are reasonably secure even if their country is not necessarily rich. This book tries to debunk some of the myths that suggest that this cannot be done in low- and middle-income countries. Social security is about societal resource sharing – and nobody is too poor to share.

What conclusions can be drawn from the economic crisis with regard to social security?

The economic crisis has made it clear that the United Nations and other international bodies should be formulating strategies for the global promotion of social security as a core element of policies to reduce poverty and of wider development policies to enable countries to grow with equity. There is a powerful case for the rapid expansion of universal social security in low-income countries and for the introduction of a basic social protection floor in all countries, as promoted in the Global Jobs Pact adopted by the ILO’s annual International Labour Conference in June 2009.

What are the book’s recommendations?

Building decent societies discusses the enormous and insufficiently exploited potential in low-income countries for expanding universal social security. New international strategies must recognize that economic and social development are inextricably intertwined across countries and that appropriate social security policies have to be designed to help to reduce poverty effectively and contribute productively to economic and social development. This is a strong message that has become particularly relevant to the global financial and economic crisis of 2008/09 and has started to find its way into the international and national debates on development policy.

The editor

Peter Townsend was Professor of International Social Policy at the London School of Economics, and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Bristol University. Over the course of a long career, his research interests included international social policy; the sociology of poverty; inequalities in health; and ageing, disability and the family. His most recent publications include The right to social security and national development: Lessons from OECD experience for low-income countries (2007), Child poverty in the developing world (co-authored with David Gordon and others, 2003) and World poverty: New policies to defeat an old enemy (co-editor, 2002). A tireless activist and campaigner, he was co-Founder and President of the Disability Alliance, and a founding member and President of the Child Poverty Action Group up until his untimely death in June 2009.

The contributors

A number of prominent social security specialists contributed to the book: Armando Barrientos, Christina Behrendt, Bea Cantillon, Michael Cichon, Chris de Neubourg, John Farrington, Krzysztof Hagemejer, Paul Harvey, Rebecca Holmes, Pongpisut Jongudomsuk, Stephen Kidd, Rüdiger Krech, Supon Limwattananon, Peter Lindert, Francie Lund, Walaiporn Patcharanarumol, Phusit Prakongsai, Michael Samson, Wolfgang Scholz, Rachel Slater, Viroj Tangcharoensathien and Raymond Wagener.