12 June, 2020

Are we running from one disaster to another or investing more in social protection?

Strong social protection makes a country more resilient to shocks. It is therefore undoubtedly better for people to receive a decent replacement income than to wait for emergency aid from abroad. Yet no less than 55% of the world's population does not benefit from any form of social protection and 71% is insufficiently protected throughout their life.

COVID-19 and the measures taken make the shortages painfully clear. The question arises as to what support we offer, as high income countries, so that low and middle income countries can cope with this crisis and future ones. Are we going to opt for a quick, short-term response involving field hospitals, doctors and food aid, or are we investing in solid local and national structures that can also deal with future emergencies? There is no shortage of good intentions, but in practice (and budgets), the policy does not follow for the time being.

Is it black or white?

Whether humanitarian interventions and strengthening social protection structures are contradictory or rather complementary is no easy question. At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, humanitarian organisations themselves attempted to formulate an answer. In the future, humanitarian needs should be partly met by the responsiveness of governments and civil society, although there are always crises in which the international humanitarian community should intervene directly. The conclusion was that addressing emergencies should be an exception, not the long-term sustainable response.

Agenda for Humanity

A number of recommendations were made at the summit to bridge the gap between these two approaches. Investing in data and risk analysis, for example, can help anticipate crises, and local response capacity needs to be mapped before a crisis occurs. Local systems should not be replaced, they should be strengthened.

Drawing up a multi-year plan makes it possible to work on common results. Gradually, we can develop a health system that can handle a sudden surge in patient numbers, provide sanitation, for example, in order to prevent a seasonal cholera outbreak, or find a way to provide an adequate general substituted in the event of a massive drop in income.

The "Agenda for Humanity" drafted at the summit also calls for the strengthening of national social security systems to guarantee populations have - access to basic services and social benefits. Despite the good intentions, much remains to be done.

The figures behind the policy

The figures for development cooperation show that, within the total expenditure for humanitarian aid, the share for preparation and resilience is still low. The EU’s contribution has increased significantly over the past decade, with just under 12% of total humanitarian aid expenditure now devoted to disaster preparedness and prevention. In Belgium, this was a meager 1.5% in 2018.

What about social protection?

While total EU development cooperation expenditure has increased, the budget for the structural strengthening of social protection has decreased. Less than 1% of European Development Cooperation goes to social protection. In Belgium, development cooperation is completely in savings mode. But striking changes are visible within the Belgian figures: spending on social protection and health care has fallen, whereas humanitarian aid has risen sharply.

The lockdowns of recent months have completely compromised decent work in many countries and show how vulnerable millions of workers are when a crisis hits. The ILO is therefore right to call for work on safer, fairer and more sustainable systems.

Achieving "shock-proof social protection" requires robust social protection systems that provide income guarantees in normal times and ensure access to essential services such as health care, but are also linked to disaster preparedness. This is by no means the case everywhere.

It seems as if the world community is moving in the right direction. Since the adoption of ILO Recommendation 202 in 2012, social protection has been prominent on the international agenda, and social protection and decent work are also central in the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. But in Belgium, the political framework and the resources are lagging behind. For the time being, we seem to have missed the shift towards a truly sustainable long-term approach.

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