First Day Reflections

(originally posted in Eldis Communities)


The Social Protection for Social Justice Conference has been organised by the Centre for Social Protection at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton. I’ve had a connection with the CSP since 2010 through research looking at lessons from cash transfer programs with UNICEF (more on that later).


As a former staffer at IDS I felt I knew what to expect in terms of the process I’d experience at the conference. But for me the area of social protection, its models, instruments and actors, are still fresh after only a year of engagement. So in terms of my concrete expectations I travelled to the conference this morning hoping to find out about a wider range of social protection instruments, to understand the legal and political economy connections between social justice and social protection and to have an opportunity to engage in debate around linkages to climate compatible development. What was making me both nervous and excited was that the video policy brief of the research on cash transfers I had been working on for a year would be previewed at the conference at a lunch time side event. Would anyone turn up if the sandwiches were too tempting and what would people make of the lessons we were sharing from practitioners?

Rachel Sabates-Wheeler and Stephen Devereux (co-directors of the Centre for Social Protection at IDS) introduced the focus of the conference. They suggested that for too long theory and practice has focused only on the economic and instrumental dimensions of social protection. The conference was convened around the structural social causes of vulnerability, poverty and exclusion. We were invited to envisage a more transformative form of social protection. Four themes would focus the conferences exploration of a more idealistic vision of what social protection should be: governance, climate change, equality and vulnerability.

Three agenda setting papers were shared in the first plenary. Thandika Mkwandawire (London School of Economics) argued that social protection had got stuck in a rut. Its evolution had a direct lineage from attempts to add a human face to structural adjustment programs and had not moved critically beyond them. Evidence of its impacts were statistically insignificant and influential stakeholders (multilaterals, bilaterals, government officials and consultants) had self serving interests in status quo social protection policy. These compromises had lowered ambitions of what Social Policy could be. For Mkwandawire a more transformative social policy agenda was needed based on pillars of equality and solidarity found in successful social protection policies in Europe. This would not only be more impactful but also more sustainable in terms of national political economies. Richard Morgan (UNICEF) agreed with Sabates Wheeler and Devereux that social protection continued to be too focused on economic dimension to the exclusion of issue around health, water/sanitation, gender and political marginalisation. A more transformative social protection agenda needed to add basic services, political and legal protection and true participation. The political resistance that transformative social protection encounters could be addressed by demonstrating co-benefits for social and political elites. It can also build on existing social protection programs by increasing information flows to beneficiaries, using mobile banking, community social audits and building demand from potential beneficiaries. Stephen Devereux (IDS) explored why we should consider social justice as in integral objective of social protection. A focus on justice could return the social to the heart of social protection discourses and guard against that risk that it would loose it footing in development policy. Adding justice could even be a win win for governments as removing discriminatory barriers to participation in the employment market (e.g. gender, caste, disability) would reduce welfare bills.

Comments that I appreciated in this plenary drew attention to that fact that contemporary discussion of social protection in international development discourse over the last 10 years neglected different histories of social protection.   Subsidy policies that existed before structural adjustment in many countries in health, education and agriculture (whether for inputs like fertilizer or outputs at the farm gate) had been important forms of protection. More than 50 years of post-war social policy and the history of the state in different countries were also important to understanding the opportunities, conflicts and trade offs around social protection looking forward to transformative social justice approaches. I also liked the clarification that transformative social protection was not a separate set of instruments or stages, but rather the outcome of how governments implemented the three ‘P’s of existing social protection policy (to protect, prevent and promote).

Lunch arrived and it was time for the premier of the video policy brief on lessons from the operation of cash transfer programs that I had worked on with IDS and UNICEF in Kenya, Zambia and Mongolia over the last year. We were interested to see whether this form of communicating lessons from practitioners in countries to international policy makers added anything to existing methods of research communication. It was the first time I’d seen the film and as well as being really excited to see the research findings portrayed so clearly the initial evaluation from conference participants was quite positive as to its added value. The report, printed brief and video will be available from IDS very shortly.

In the afternoon there were eight parallel panel sessions to choose between. The first panel I sat in was Ensuring Access to Social Protection and Social Rights. Andrew Fischer (Institute of Social Studies – the Hague) gave a powerful presentation on insights from contemporary demography. There were many fallacies of population floating around that didn’t account for recent research. In particular the relationship between economic growth and reducing population was not at all causal proven and in fact the biggest determinant of reducing fertility in all societies was in fact reducing mortality (longevity). Andrew used this as a basis for arguing for health services with universalistic social protection provision. Rachel Sabates Wheeler presented findings from a new book co-edited with Feldman titled ‘Social Protection and Migration: claiming social rights beyond borders’. Rachel highlighted that political factors supported some of the biggest barriers for migrants seeking to access social protection assets (such as cash transfers). Increasing the portability of social protection entitlements were one of the most important interventions of reducing access barriers for migrants (especially government distribution systems that used exclusionary eligibility or identity criteria to screen beneficiaries). Wendy Nefdt (University of Cape Town) presented preliminary findings from research into how social capital capacity development among civil society organisations in the Western Cap of South Africa contributed to the effective realisation of social protection entitlements formally provided for in the constitution of South Africa. The creation of learning networks among CSOs was effective a building social capital for social protection because joint activities built trust and openness for peer learning.

The second panel I attended focused on Social Protection, Climate Change and Disasters. Paul Siegel (World Bank Consultant) gave a detailed explanation of the case for an evolution of the Social Protection Floor approach that introduced adjustment for climate risk. Paul argued that a perfect storm of crises, shocks and uncertainties existed for revisiting the fundamental proposals for Sustainable Development made two decades ago by the Bruntland Commission. The utilitarian and market principles of the Washington Consensus could be replaced by liberal egalitarian values drawing on the work of social philosophers including Rawls, Sen, Dworkin and Nusbaum. Typically justice and efficiency objectives conflicted but Paul suggested that in the case of a risk adjusted social protection floor they actually converged. Mark Davies (IDS) gave us a short history of the Adaptive Social Protection Approach, charting its evolution and recent empirical underpinning through research in South Asia and policy reflection at an international ASP conference in Addis Ababa. ASP sought to bring together social protection, disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation. Evidence from South Asia suggested that although rarely pursued together, these three approaches combined lead to more transformative outcomes (especially when rights based, vulnerability and climate risk analysis was used). The Addis conference did though highlight the political economy challenge for ASP and suggested that advocates need to work harder to sell the upside of ASP to governments. Concluding the panel, Terry Cannon (IDS) focused on the role of power in constraining social protection responses to disaster risk reduction. Power was usually too sensitive to address head on and so governance was the rubric for debate. Terry shared comparative country examples of where weak governance had resulted in the failure of society to protect citizens from hazards. This only reinforced the point that physical hazards like cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes are never purely or primarily natural but socially constructed.

My personal reflections from today firstly relate to the final panel I attended. I felt that the political economy of change for each of the proposed approaches to Social Protection, Climate Change and Disasters as presented was neither well theorised or evidenced. The impact of political inertia around sustainable, socially transformative and risk reducing development policy in almost all national governments to me is a major explanatory feature of why we have so little progress on climate change, poverty and justice. Perhaps it’s time to stop looking up to national and international governance systems to lead transformative change and build around networked local social mobilisation. My second reflection is a little more semantic. I simply wonder if the ‘protection’ part of social protection is just unattractive or un-resonant for both political/social elites and beneficiaries. To me protection implies both a degree of culpability and victimhood that is unnecessary to advance the aims that social protection holds. Given points made about shared political economy, history, co-benefits etc how about we try on Social Stabilisation on for size as a more inclusive concept.