Last week I attended a lecture which formed part of the BDI lecture series. This one, ‘States, Citizens and Social Protection: Reflections on the Asian Experience’, was led by Naila Kabeer (Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) and Hossain Zillur Rahman (Former Advisor to the Caretaker Government of Bangladesh and founder and Chairperson of the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC)), and coordinated by Syed M. Hashemi (Director, BDI).
Growth of social protection in the development landscape
Naila Kabeer drew attention to the recent work of the Social Protection in Asia (SPA) programme, (http://www.socialprotectionasia.org/), which has aimed to develop a research base and voice to advocate on behalf of innovative and informed policy on social protection issues. It has sought to identify lessons from a variety of initiatives, including, for example, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in India, and initiatives with the elderly in China. She pointed out that recent years have seen a growth in interest towards social protection. The forces of neo-liberalism, in which safety-nets were largely residual in function, leaving the family to shoulder the majority of welfare provision, were made more visible in the wake of various economic crises, which placed further strains of these mechanisms. In places, financial crises have served to kick-start or set the pace for the establishment of some longer term social protection infrastructure (e.g. in Indonesia following the 97/98 Asian financial crisis).
Nevertheless, despite the gains made in raising the profile of the importance for social protection in policy circles, there is still a significant amount to be learnt about how to deal with vulnerability and ensure long-term investment in social protection. In Kabeer’s view, there is still some way to go in moving from a residual (ex-post) approach to one where social protection is comprehensive, inclusive and institutionalised (ex-ante), or one where social protection ‘is development policy’ states Zillur Rahman. In other words, where the state takes responsibility.
Barriers to the state taking over long-term responsibility
So what are the barriers to the state taking the responsibility to ensure institutionalised, comprehensive and inclusive social protection? A ‘dual narrative’ or a ‘trajectory of change’ needs to get underway. Lessons from the SPA programme throughout Asia suggest that:
We (including the state) need to move from looking at poor and vulnerable individuals precisely as that: there needs to be a shift from a framework which sees people as vulnerable individuals to a society of resources and capable citizens. “Vulnerability undermines the capacity to act like a citizen”, states Kabeer, and as such, we need to invest in ways which don’t undermine people.
The tendency to implement knee-jerk programmes in reaction to crisis has left a plethora of different kinds of interventions, but how do we make sure no-one falls beneath the cracks? The homeless, the urban poor, or migrant women, for example. We need a force which pulls them up and includes them. The state needs capacity and a mandate to do this.
There remains the big question of what exactly makes the state responsive? Under what circumstances do states take on institutional responsibility for social protection? Historical analysis shows that there are moments in history where states are galvanised into action. For example, turning 100 days of employment into a right in India (the NREGA) was a culmination of an ongoing movement for farmers (alongside growing suicide among rural farmers) and an election. Kabeer argued that critical moments and events such as drought and floods all matter. Indonesia’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme was in part a response to a cutting of fuel subsides, alongside price increases, for example, although this particular example does highlight the need for caution in adopting and translating policy measures found to work in one part of the world to another (in this case CCTs from Latin America to South-East Asia).
Role of civil society – necessary but not sufficient?
Civil society plays a significant and important role in forging the path for institutionalised social protection. E.g. In Bangladesh, NGOs house the large responsibility for service provision. But the problem with this, in pursuing the goal of institutionalised and comprehensive social protection, is accountability. This is not to criticise or devalue the level of innovation found among civil society actors (e.g. community-based initiatives with the elderly in China have served to highlight what Kabeer sees as a false dichotomy between the elderly and non-elderly), but instead to highlight that the role of civil society is important, but not as the main provider.
Kabeer drew attention to how much we take for granted the work of the people physically running social protection schemes on the ground. Local level officers are at the interface between the state and citizen and it is they who make the difference to whether an approach respects beneficiaries as citizens (ensuring entitlements) or as beggars (providing handouts). More recognition is needed of the extent of innovation on the ground, combined with more investment into these human resources of social protection.
Rahman likewise highlighted the level of innovation and diverse portfolio of social protection initiatives and civil society actors in Bangladesh, also reiterating and the importance of events (e.g. micro-credit was born in the wake of a famine in Bangladesh). While he also cautioned that new risks are continually arising, particularly those presented by urban poverty in Bangladesh and health issues, confirming that the state needs to take over responsibility for implementing sustainable social protection infrastructure for the long-term. He also raised an important point when discussing the social and physiological costs of poverty and disaster. There are psychological costs to those affected by the monga period in Bangladesh, for example (a period of employment shortage which implicates food availability mainly in the north-west region). These costs need to be greater recognised in tandem with a move away from seeing victims of disaster in a dehumanised way.
So, to move towards a policy framework which institutionalises social protection from one which responds in an ad hoc and residual way, is Bangladesh heading in the right direction? What kinds of moments or events need to happen here? In response to this question, Zillur Rahman highlighted that state resources remain a core and pivotal constraint. Nevertheless, it seems that raising the question of long-term responsibility and the role of civil society is a valuable one. Institutionalised, comprehensive and inclusive social protection, would ideally ensure that the extreme poor no longer fall through the cracks. The emerging consensus about the importance of social protection, combined with important events and moments, need to be seen as windows of opportunities to influence.