Reframing social protection for social justice

15 July 2014

In a Special Issue for the European Journal of Development Research launched last week, academics and policy-makers call for a moment of reflection to consider the relationship between social protection and social justice.

Woman and family on steps

A moment of pause on social protection

As social protection has risen rapidly up the policy agenda of many governments, donors, international organisations and NGOs there is cause for concern that it often fails to consider diverse national contexts and their politics. As such it may not bring about interventions that will be sustainable in their efforts to reduce poverty and vulnerability.

The Special Issue has been produced following the conference on ‘Social Protection for Social Justice’ organised by the Centre for Social Protection and held at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). The conference brought together academics, policymakers and practitioners from around the world, to explore the extent to which social protection programmes can or should be conceived of as a vehicle not just for poverty reduction but also for reducing vulnerability and for moving poor people everywhere towards more socially just outcomes.

The contributors to the volume consider whether approaches to social protection policies and programmes are becoming too technocratic in their focus and insufficiently concerned about achieving social justice for all. The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), argues that social protection should be concerned with preventing, managing, and overcoming situations that adversely affect people's wellbeing. But, as Timo Voipio, Senior Adviser for Global Social Policy and Decent Work in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland notes in his foreword to the Special Issue:

‘Social protection is often (rightly and wrongly) conceived as efforts aimed at maintaining the status quo. Iron Chancellor Bismarck conceived of social insurance as a measure to prevent the socialist uprisings of workers in nineteenth-century Prussia. Since then the two main functions of social protection have been to smooth the incomes of the not-so-poor, and to ensure that no-one – not even the poorest – falls below a certain minimum threshold of human dignity.’

Making social protection ‘transformative’ for social justice

At the international level there is some political momentum for a transformative global social protection agenda. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been championing the idea of a ‘social protection floor’ in which they call for nationally-defined sets of basic social security guarantees which secure protection aimed at preventing or alleviating poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion. However it is also important that the details of social protection policies fit with the political dynamics of the countries that adopt them.

The introductory article in the volume, titled ‘Transforming Social Protection’ by IDS Research Fellows Stephen Devereux and Allister McGregor, weaves together conceptual and empirical insights from contributions by Arjan de Haan, Naila Kabeer, Sam Hickey, Deepta Chopra and Charlotte Harland. It uses a human wellbeing framework to explore what is required for social protection to be truly transformative. Social protection can be conceived, designed and implemented in different ways so that it is better able to deliver social justice in specific developing country contexts. It is time to move beyond a ‘business as usual’ approach when it comes to taking social protection to the next level.