This blog post reflects on the webinar ''Africa’s VISION to expand social protection and build forward better from COVID-19'', held on 15 June 2021. The session was jointly organized by the African Union, the Africa Social Protection Platform, HelpAge International, WIEGO, Save the Children, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) – Zambia, and the ILO Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa. Participants at the webinar heard from Oumar Diop (AU Commission), Pakwanja Desiree Twea (Government of Malawi), Dr Rita Owusu-Amankwah (Government of Ghana), Naima Hrouche (Government of Morocco), Sheila Nkunika (Save the Children Nigeria), Dr Pamhidzai H. Bamu (WIEGO), Carole Agengo (HelpAge International), Sergio Falange (APSP), Dr Laura Alfers (WIEGO), and Sabelo Mbokazi (AU Commission). The recording and presentation are available and can be accessed online.
In the third and final webinar of the African Dialogue on COVID-19 and the Future of Social Protection, representatives of African governments, the African Union, East African Community, and civil society organizations vowed to intensify their efforts to expand social protection coverage. Participants were united in their view of social protection as a requirement to overcoming the COVID-19 crisis and accelerating progress towards more just, inclusive, and prosperous societies and economies. There was also a consensus that for the expansion of social protection to be sustainable, effective, and inclusive, it needs to be grounded in rights, based on public engagement, and guided by national and continental frameworks
Oumar Diop, Senior Labour Officer at the African Union Commission, began the conversation by emphasizing the vital role of continental legal and policy frameworks, such as Agenda 2063 or the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Older Persons, in guiding the expansion of social protection. Building on these frameworks, the currently being drafted Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Citizens to Social Protection and Social Security will provide further guidance to governments and reinforce people’s rights to income security at this crucial time. During COVID-19, these frameworks have guided the African Union’s analysis of the pandemic’s impacts as well as the delivery of support. Finally, according to Mr Diop, a strategic framework on social protection enables inter-sectoral collaboration and the transparent tracking of social protection expenditures, which are both key to achieving higher levels of investment.
Moving from the continental to the regional level, Morris Tayebwa, Coordinator on Children and Youth at the East African Community (EAC), shared his assessment that social protection systems within the EAC (which includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda) were simply not prepared for the COVID-19 crises. Therefore, they struggled to provide adequate protection to potentially vulnerable groups, such as children, older persons, persons with disabilities and informal workers. In his view, some of these challenges can be addressed through enhanced cross-border collaboration and the development of regional social policy frameworks that can, for instance, guide the harmonisation and portability of social security benefits.
Naima Hrouche, Head of Service for Bilateral Social Protection Agreements, Government of Morocco, also stressed the importance of legal and policy frameworks in achieving universal social protection. She explained how Morocco’s social protection system has been developed on the basis of both constitutional principles and international labour standards. It was these principles – as well as the challenges experienced by many Moroccans during COVID-19 – that prompted the Government to commit to an ambitious strategy to achieve universal social protection by 2025, including universal health insurance, expanded basic pensions and a broad-based family allowance.
While there was a consensus amongst speakers that social protection systems were overwhelmed and often unable to address the significant challenges of the pandemic, they nonetheless provided vital relief, especially where programmes were scaled up. Pakwanja Desiree Twea, Principal Economist at the Ministry of Health and Population, Government of Malawi, gave the example of Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Scheme, which was expanded to reach additional recipients and paid higher transfers during the early months of the crisis.
Dr Rita Owusu-Amankwah, Director at Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Government of Ghana, presented a similar story, where the national cash transfer programme (Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty, LEAP) was used to provide additional transfers to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. Dr Owusu-Amankwah stressed the importance of strengthening implementation systems and place programmes on sound legal foundations, which is done through a social protection bill that is currently being developed.
Continuing the focus on children, Sheila Nkunika, Senior Social Protection Specialist at Save the Children Nigeria, outlined the case for increased investments in social protection for children and ensuring that social protection is increasingly child-sensitive. This is important as more than half of those living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa are children. Widespread child poverty not only runs counter to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child but also inflicts permanent damage to children’s development. On the other hand, investing in social protection for children yields high economic returns over time. Save the Children, therefore, calls on Governments and partners to substantially increase investments in child-sensitive social protection and eventually reach every child through universal child benefits.
Having heard a lot about the value of international frameworks, Dr Pamhidzai H. Bamu, Law Programme Regional Coordinator Africa, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), turned to the role of national laws and courts in advancing social protection. She presented five recent court cases from southern Africa that deliberated on the right to access social protection during COVID-19, mainly from the perspective of informal workers. What these cases have in common, she explained, was the increased recognition by national legal systems of the universal right to social protection in line with international obligations and constitutional provisions. There remains, however, much room for improvement and she expressed her hope that the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Citizens to Social Protection and Social Security will be approved to further strengthen the rights-based approach for universal social protection.
Carole Agengo, Africa Regional Representative of HelpAge International, called on participants and listeners to recognize the transformative potential of social protection and go beyond the provision of some cash transfers here and there. In her analysis, there is a need to go to the root causes of poverty, inequality, marginalization, and conflict, which to her are based on poor governance. She rhetorically asked what, for instance, was the role of social protection in improving access to quality education and health? She further called for a greater role for social protection in not just responding to disasters and conflicts, but also in preventing them from emerging in the first place. She closed by calling attention to the life cycle. An older person living in poverty represents a lifetime of hardship, underinvestment, and lack of social protection. To break this cycle of poverty, it is essential that Governments invest in adequate social protection across the life course, starting with infants and all the way to older ages.
Sergio Falange, Executive Director of the Mozambican Platform for Social Protection, and the African Platform for Social Protection closed the discussion by underscoring the essential role that civil society plays in expanding social protection and achieving more just, inclusive and democratic societies. Civil society can support the social accountability of programmes and systems, raise awareness of people’s rights and entitlements, generate political will through advocacy, and promote bottom-up initiatives to provide or improve social protection.
Jointly building on progress made to achieve universal social protection
The Dialogue’s sessions have made it clear that there is a widespread and growing recognition amongst African policy makers and stakeholders that social protection is critical for the continent’s development as well as the wellbeing and dignity of all Africans. The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it apparent to all that much still needs to be done to achieve universal social protection. Fortunately, as we have heard, the continent is home to many examples of successful expansions of social protection and the hopefully soon-to-be adopted African Union Protocol on the Rights of Citizens to Social Protection and Social Security should provide further momentum and support. Finally, we have once again learned that achieving universal social protection can only be done collectively, with governments, regional bodies and civil society working together.
The African Union, the Africa Social Protection Platform, HelpAge International, WIEGO, Save the Children, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) – Zambia, and the ILO Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa would like to thank all speakers and participants for their valued contributions to the Dialogue and extend a special thank you to Simon Nhongo, Zimbabwe Social Protection Platform, Southern Africa Representative of the Africa Platform for Social Protection (APSP), for his expert moderation of the webinars. Organizers would further express their gratitude to socialprotection.org for supporting and hosting the dialogue.