How to build a national social protection system in 10 easy steps

9 September 2015

Next week the OECD Development Centre will host a ‘kick-off meeting’ for the European Union Social Protection Systems Programme (EU-SPS) in Paris. The aim of EU-SPS is ‘to support low and lower middle-income countries in building sustainable and inclusive social protection systems.’ This continues a trend towards institutionalising social protection into law and policy, highlighted in a recent Centre for Social Protection report ‘Where Next for Social Protection?’ Examples include Mozambique’s Social Protection Law and UNICEF’s strategic framework on ‘Integrated Social Protection Systems (PDF)’.

The CSP has supported the development of social protection systems in several African countries since 2010, including Chad, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Rwanda, Swaziland and Zanzibar.

Building blocks and a systematic approach

Our experience has taught us that several building blocks are needed, and that a systematic and sequenced approach is the best way to go about doing this. However, contrary to this, our experience has also revealed that no country ever follows a systematic and sequenced approach, and that critical building blocks are often overlooked, resulting in stop-start policy processes and gaps in the system as it evolves.

‘10-step programme’

I propose the following checklist as a guideline to governments and development partners embarking on a process of building a national social protection system.

  1. Awareness raising: Introducing social protection requires raising awareness at all levels, from politicians to the general public. For example, CSP has contributed to two national dialogues on social protection in Swaziland. In Zanzibar we made presentations on social protection to the House of Representatives and the Revolutionary Council. Malawi ran a radio series with a catchy theme tune and beneficiaries sharing how cash transfers had transformed their lives.
  2. Scoping: Once a decision is taken to move forward with social protection, the country needs to define the scope of the agenda. What is the national vision for social protection, and how does it support the national development plan or poverty reduction strategy? Which definition and conceptual framework of social protection will be adopted – will it be welfarist, growth-oriented, or rights-based?
  3. Policy mapping: What social protection programmes are already being implemented in the country? Who is reached by these programmes and who is left out? Are these programmes effective or should they be reformed or replaced?
  4. Needs assessment: A social protection system should not be an off-the-shelf blueprint, but must be grounded in local analysis of social protection needs, which can be derived from national poverty surveys and other secondary sources. Who are the poor and food insecure? What are the drivers of poverty and vulnerability? By comparing the needs assessment with the policy mapping, a gaps analysis can be conducted that will inform the development of the social protection strategy.
  5. Capacity assessment: What resources already exist to deliver social protection, and what additional resources are needed? The assessment should cover human resources (staffing numbers and expertise), administrative systems (including management information systems (MIS)), technological capability (can mobile phones or banks be used to deliver transfers?) and fiscal space (how much money can be mobilised?).
  6. Strategising: After these preliminary steps have been conducted, the National Social Protection Strategy (NSPS) or Policy (NSPP) needs to be drafted, finalised and approved by Cabinet. CSP has provided technical assistance for this work in several cases, but the process should be consultative and it must always be led by the government. The strategy or policy should be accompanied by a costed and timetabled implementation plan, otherwise it risks being launched and then collecting dust on a Ministry shelf.
  7. Piloting: Introducing or scaling up social protection requires testing new ideas and experimenting with options. This might include innovative projects (e.g. moving from food aid to cash transfers, as on Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme), delivery mechanisms (e.g. moving from manual to electronic payments, as with Kenya’s M-Pesa system) and management systems (e.g. a ‘single registry’ database covering all social protection beneficiaries, as with Lesotho’s National Information System for Social Assistance (NISSA)).
  8. Lesson learning: Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems need to be set up or strengthened, so that programmes can be monitored (is social protection being delivered efficiently and cost-effectively with due attention to ‘customer care’?) and their impacts can be evaluated (are social protection programmes achieving their objectives?). Information from the M&E system should feed back into continuous reassessment and improvement of programmes.
  9. Capacity building: Delivering social protection requires capacity, and capacity deficits will have been identified by the initial capacity assessment (step #5). Many modalities are possible. In Lesotho and Rwanda, CSP delivered training workshops for government officials followed by ‘training of trainers’ (ToT) to build local capacity. In Rwanda and Uganda, development partners provided long-term technical assistance (TA) to the Ministry responsible for social protection. In 2014, a delegation of Nigerian government officials visited South Africa to learn about South Africa’s social protection system.
  10. Institutionalisation: The trend in global social protection practice is to move from fragmented projects towards integrated systems that ensure comprehensive coverage and build cross-sectoral linkages with other sectors (education, health, agriculture, labour). Institutionalising social protection requires establishing coordination mechanisms (at three levels – within government, among development partners, and between the government and development partners), a sustainable financing strategy, and framework legislation.

What is already happening?

Two events that I attended in August highlighted the opportunities, and the challenges. 

  1. Following a High Level Social Protection Dialogue in Swaziland in November 2012, there was little movement on the social protection agenda for almost three years, but last month the Government of Swaziland and the United Nations Country team convened a follow-up National Social Protection Dialogue which was opened by the Prime Minister. There is now a real sense of momentum and a National Social Protection Strategy is in the pipeline.
  2. A workshop on social protection in Madagascar brought together government, development partners and an impressively vocal civil society. In June 2015 Madagascar published its National Policy for Social Protection, but political instability and low capacity to deliver resulted in a depressingly unambitious vision – “All strata of the population benefit from an efficacious coverage by social protection by 2050”. Progressive realisation is understandable in low capacity contexts, but do Madagascans really have to wait 35 years before their right to social protection is realised?

The 10-step process outlined above reveals that building a national social protection system is a complex technical exercise requiring time, expertise and money. But most of all it needs a political champion to drive the process and make the right to social protection real. Many countries are making it happen. Come on, Madagascar – move it, move it!

The CSP will run its annual social protection training course at IDS in June 2016.

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