An Interconnected World
As COVID-19 has shown, environmental degradation and human encroachment on wildlife enables the appearance and spread of new diseases and other threats to public health. Likewise, conflict and violence disrupt food supply chains and exacerbate poverty. Climate change and political instability can affect regional security and force people into displacement. In short, threats to global sustainable development appear increasingly interconnected in successive international crises, both in terms of their origin and their impact, which transcends national boundaries and areas of human wellbeing.
Changes Have Already Taken Place
This realisation is reflected in a shift in the development cooperation narrative, especially among development actors in the Global North. The EU’s newest instrument for financing and implementing development action, called Global Europe, integrates goals such as poverty eradication and equality as well as concerns related to stability and migratory pressure under the same umbrella. In another example, the OECD is embracing a new metric to measure development progress beyond traditional, more simplistic Official Development Assistance, and towards a system referred to as Total Official Support for Sustainable Development.
A Deeper Approach
Despite these policy changes that will show their impact over time, communities around the world remain vulnerable to exogenous shocks, be them natural disasters, pandemics, food crises or economic downturns. Each new shock further endangers their ability to reduce poverty and malnutrition levels and protect public health and education, among other issues. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, pushed an additional 1.5 percent of the world population into undernourishment in 2020 and pushed almost 100 million people into poverty that same year. This shows that there is still much to be done to ensure truly transformative development – one that generates the resilience needed to face these threats. What potential avenues can achieve this?
Outlining the Approach
Some of the buzzwords in development literature are evidence-informed policies, context-appropriateness, context-realistic knowledge, or participatory action. The development localisation debate and the evolution of the ‘aid effectiveness agenda’, with principles like ownership and alignment, already exhibit increasing efforts in favour of bringing that terminology to life. However, they are not always translated into development practice. Its transformative potential is often constrained, among other things, to the programmatic nature of much development work, the insufficiency of resources, the limited types of actors involved, prevailing work dynamics and relational structures. As a result, the impact of development work ends up being limited to targeting specific, and important, needs, but often in isolation or with an insufficiently deep and structural impact.
Social Protection for Deeper Transformation
It is universally recognised in the theoretical framework that building or strengthening a sound and sustainable social protection system can be a valuable investment for that transformation. Social protection measures cover individuals and households during potential lifecycle-related needs (childhood, unemployment, disability, sickness, old age) through the combination of social assistance, social insurance and social services. Cash transfers, for example, provided some economic relief to people that could no longer work due to lockdown and movement restrictions during the pandemic. This can help build more resilient societies against external shocks, including climate-related hazards (adaptive social protection), and with better tools to sustain their own well-being and development.
The Value of Engaging in The Social Protection Conversation
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 1.3 calls for social protection systems for all. Yet, even development cooperation’s contributions to common goals, such as the protection of childhood or health, rarely explicitly address the construction of comprehensive social protection systems in their narrative. Is it time to rethink this? Although it seems challenging to translate this broader notion of ‘building strong social protection systems’ into more actionable, and realistic, ideas for the development cooperation community, especially in the face of limited resources, there are several factors that can help recognise the worthiness of such an effort.
Comprehensive Protection in The Midst of Uncertainty
Firstly, as hinted above, having a set of social policies that come together to form a ‘safety net’ for everyone can help ensure that no one is left behind when hit by a wider range of possible, and even unanticipated, shocks. Whether lifecycle-related, natural, economic, or public health emergency, a social protection floor can help protect households and individuals from falling below the poverty line in a volatile world. A world where the origin of the next big crisis, and the way in which it will impact people’s livelihoods, are not always easy to predict.
Secondly, social protection systems are the combination of a set of public policies whose official provider and manager is each country or community’s own authorities, and which are financed by each country or community’s own revenue. This is regardless of the country’s level of development. So, it is generally understood as the corresponding authorities’ responsibility. This means the financing and distribution structures are already envisaged in official plans and budgets, even if insufficiently. This can be in terms of in-kind benefits or cash payments.
This is also true of other areas of development action. However, the national scale of many state-led social policies makes it unfeasible for external actors to single-handedly implement and sustain such systems. And, this is amplified by the fact that social protection systems are not limited to non-contributory social transfers or assistance- these are part of a more complex system that includes, amongst others, contributory social insurance schemes.
While donors can distribute cash transfers to poor households, a deeper and more rooted contribution to the building of a sound social protection system inevitably requires for local structures and actors to be the starting point. Therefore, support in the form of evidence-informed expertise for this process, more in line with technical assistance, can also have a transformational impact without needing large-scale resource mobilisation on the part of external development practitioners. The principles of ownership and alignment with national needs, and the prevalence of context-appropriate knowledge, can thus be promoted through the local leadership needed for the construction of a comprehensive social protection floor.
Wider thinking, Deeper Acting
It is important to understand development challenges within the complex global landscape in which they persist, but also to combine this perspective with deeper development thinking and action to build resilience and protect livelihoods in developing contexts. In line with the spirit of SDG 17, partnerships for global development, joining forces to ensure social protection for all is one starting point that is worth exploring.