By Anna Carolina Machado and Charlotte Bilo
The International conference on Universal Child Grants (UCGs) took place in Geneva from 6-8 February 2019. It gathered together researchers, development practitioners, and government officials from various countries and backgrounds. The event was livestreamed by socialprotection.org and the recording is available.
Participants deliberated on two leading issues: The first is whether the time has come to promote a universal approach to social protection for children. The second is how to turn this proposal into practice. While there are several compelling arguments for the introduction of UCGs, the conference also showed that some issues remain controversial.
The following topics featured as central in the discussions:
- Targeted versus universal cash grants: There is concrete evidence that cash transfers have a transformative effect on children’s lives, by improving outcomes in some of their most essential rights – such as food security, education and health. See for example, the session on How Design Features Affect Child Poverty Outcomes and Bastagli et al. (2016). However, most of this evidence concerns targeted transfers for the poorest. Evidence on universal grants is not as abundant.
- A rights based approach: UCGs enhance the perspective of social protection as a right, rather than as a form of charity towards the poorest, which can often have stigmatising effects. See for example the conference session on human rights and a summary of the session on shame and dignity.
- Child poverty: The definition of poverty itself can be very diverse and complex. We risk spending more efforts and resources on finding and clustering the poor, rather than on designing and implementing social protection programmes that are, as far as possible, immune to inclusion and (more importantly) exclusion errors (see for example Stephen Kidd’s presentation in the panel on Pivotal Debates on UCGs). Moreover, given that children are disproportionally affected by poverty, and the high incidence of child poverty in most low and middle-income countries, a universal benefit should be considered as an option that can actually improve living standards for all (and not just a subgroup of) children.
- Fiscal space: Financing is the biggest challenge. While there are many possible strategies for increasing fiscal space for social protection (see for example Ortiz et al 2017), there are difficulties inherent to all. Resource constrains are still listed as the major barrier for the introduction of UCGs, highlighting once more the importance of understanding the political economies of the different countries (see also the session on the political economy of UCGs).In this regard, country and regional contexts matter (see the sessions on the Middle East and North Africa and on Europe and Central Asia to understand how country and regional particularities are central to the debate).
- Coverage: In the joint report, ‘Towards universal social protection for children: Achieving SDG 1.3’ by the ILO and UNICEF (launched during the conference), only 23 countries (out of 215 analysed) have a universal or quasi-universal child grant in place. Other countries (40 in total) count on means-tested schemes of varying coverage and a large proportion of countries (86) have no child or family scheme at all anchored in national legislation.
- Success in the Global South: While most UCGs are concentrated in high-income countries, experiences from the Global South have shown that the implementation of universal child grants can become a reality – see, for example, the session on the Assignation Universal por Hijo in Argentina and Mongolia’s Child Money Programme. Other countries have been implementing important measures to ensure that universal child grants are set on the table as a policy option: Brazil, Tunisia, Nepal, and Thailand are now discussing the feasibility of universal transfers for their children.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution that countries can follow in order to implement a child grant. Nevertheless, we found that the following aspects remain pertinent in the discussion on UCGs:
- The policy choice for universality is very dependent on the political environment, highlighting once more the need to act within the political economy of each country.
- Although the debate about targeting vs. universal continues with good arguments on both sides, there seems to emerge some consensus on providing universal grants to children under 3 years old, given the importance of investing in the first 1,000 days of the child’s life for subsequent development.
- Some new topics still need to be discussed in more detail; namely the relationship between UCGs and dignity/shame. Another topic which is often side-lined is the rights of care givers, who are in most cases women.
- Despite their occasional differences in opinions, international agencies working on social protection for children should work more closely to provide more coherent support to countries in advancing social protection for children. Conflicting messages from agencies charged with helping and advising national governments may lead to confusion and policy paralysis.
- It is essential to see the ‘big picture’ when discussing the full realisation of children’s rights. Indeed, cash transfers alone will not be the only solution to fight child poverty, and social protection systems should be strengthened to ensure that public services are accessible to all.
The conference provided an important space to discuss the main pros and cons of UCGs. Despite varying opinions on topics such as design and financing, it became clear once more that the social protection agenda, although not alone, will remain a key instrument in the elimination of child poverty everywhere until 2030.