The webinar “The Social Protection Indicator for Asia – tracking developments in social protection” was held on 14 June 2022. This webinar is part of the “Asia-Pacific Social Protection” Series and co-organised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), with support from The webinar presented the results of the analysis of the state of social protection in Asia carried out as part of ADB’s Social Protection Indicator (SPI) initiative. The report with these findings is to be launched later this year and it will be the fourth in the SPI series. The report summarizes the results from 26 national reports based on the compilation of country-level data for social protection programmes implemented in 2018 in Asia. A companion report focuses on social protection in the Pacific. The previous SPI report the Social Protection Indicator (SPI) for Asia: Assessing Progress (ADB, 2019) draws on 2015 data.

The 2018 SPI report for Asia shows the level of resources invested in social protection, the extent of coverage, benefit levels, and distribution of expenditure along poverty, gender, and disability dimensions. The report includes chapters on disability, social protection response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a forward-looking chapter assessing the prospects for social protection in Asia.

The session was moderated by Jessica Owens, Regional Advisor, Social Policy from UNICEF ROSA. Wendy Walker, Chief of the Social Development Thematic Group, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department at the ADB, opened the session. The speakers were Babken Babajanian, Associate Professorial Lecturer at the London School of Economics, and Nuno Cunha, Senior Social Protection Technical Specialist from ILO. The discussants were Ludovico Carraro, independent development consultant, and Enkhtsetseg Byambaa, Lecturer and Researcher at the National University of Mongolia. Finally, the closing remarks were made by Markus Ruck, Specialist on Social Protection, ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific.


Opening remarks

Wendy Walker

Walker informed the participants that this is the second of two sessions sharing the findings of the recently completed SPI analysis for the Asia and the Pacific regions. The SPI for Asia report covers 26 countries and assesses the level of resources invested in social protection, the extent of benefit coverage and depth, as well as distribution of spending in terms of gender, poverty, and disability. The Report also discusses constraints and opportunities in the production and analysis of data and statistics on social protection.

Walker highlighted that there are substantial challenges to producing and compiling social protection data in Asia. In addition, improvements are needed to enhance monitoring and evaluation as a means of developing strong social protection systems and supporting policy and programme development.



Babken Babajanian

Babajanian presented the main findings of the SPI analysis. In 2018, the average SPI in 26 countries was 4.0% of GDP per capita. Average social protection spending between 2009 and 2018 increased at a modest pace and has been largely crisis-driven. Specifically, spikes in social protection expenditure were stimulated by major crises, such as the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the global financial crisis in 2008/2009, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there were no substantial investments in the post-crisis periods. The presenter concluded that social protection expenditure needs to be accelerated to enable countries to build comprehensive systems, increase coverage and improve benefit adequacy.

Social insurance dominates spending in the region, partly due to the efforts to establish universal health and pensions insurance in many countries in Asia. Social assistance SPI remained unchanged between 2009 and 2018. Social assistance has an important role in reducing poverty and vulnerabilities, but it needs to be strengthened to ensure minimum income security for all. Spending on active labour market programmes (ALMPs) was limited and needs to be enhanced.

Based on the SPI data, Babajanian explained that only a few countries have combined generous benefits with broad coverage – these are the high-income economies of Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Most countries in Asia offer small benefits but have achieved relatively high coverage. These are the countries that have established universal coverage or are moving towards closing the coverage gap in both health insurance and pension insurance, for example, Indonesia, the People’s Republic of China, the Philippines, and Thailand. Finally, a small group of countries offer generous benefits but cover small population groups. These countries provide relatively generous social insurance benefits to the formal sector workers but offer limited protection to the majority of their populations working in the informal sector. A key policy imperative is to focus efforts on the progressive closing of coverage gaps as a key priority, but also ensure that benefit adequacy remains high on the policy agenda.

The 2018 SPI in 26 countries in Asia was equally split between men and women, with the SPI for each gender at 2.0. The gender gap in access to SP decreased between 2009 and 2018 as spending on women increased. Thus, social protection in the region is becoming more gender-sensitive, but more is needed to support gender equality. It was also noted that spending on disability-focused programmes increased in the region over this period. Most countries in Asia provide at least one disability-related programme. A key policy priority should be to expand coverage and ensure the adequacy of benefits for people with disabilities.

Next, Babajanian presented the results of data analysis on policy responses to COVID-19 in Asia. A large part of the information generated for this exercise is based on estimates due to the limited availability of administrative and programme data. Nevertheless, it can be concluded that there has been an increase in emergency social protection spending across Asia of 2% of GDP on average, resulting in vertical and horizontal expansion and new programmes. It is important to seize the moment and retain and accelerate these spending levels as well as integrate shock-responsive features in existing social protection systems.


Nuno Cunha

Cunha highlighted that the quality of administrative data is fundamental to understanding the state of social protection in individual countries as well as for improving policies and influencing decision-making. In addition, good data matters because resources are scarce and it is necessary to direct them appropriately, and therefore, high-quality data can facilitate this process. Another problem is that there is often a shortage of available data that could allow better measurement of progress in social protection spending. Thus, the challenge is how to generate policy-relevant data and make it accessible for policy-making. In this connection, it is crucial to enhance coordination and collaboration, link data-related activities of different institutions both at the national and regional levels as well as standardise key conceptual definitions and methodologies.



Ludovico Carraro

Carraro argued that data is important because effective policies require information. Otherwise, it may result in making the policy not as effective as it could be. For example, the Philippines is one of the pioneers in Asia in recognising the rights of people with disabilities, but often these rights are undermined by a lack of data. In the Philippines, there is a special ID card for people with disabilities that entitle them to different discounts and access to services. However, this information is scattered across municipalities that use different definitions and methodologies; there is no national database to enable the budgeting of these services more appropriately.

At an international level, comparable data is scarce. But Mr Carraro provides some examples: The ILO has the most comprehensive source of information on legal coverage. ASPIRE from the World Bank is limited to social assistance but has a strong focus on household survey analysis. There is the ADB SPI, which provides consistent information about social protection expenditure, and ECLAC in Latin America, which provides information on non-contributory social protection. To be more efficient, databases on social protection should address the following four key dimensions of social protection: social protection expenditure, coverage, adequacy, and comprehensiveness.

There are several challenges to measuring social protection. For example, there is a lack of consensus on a definition of social protection. This lack of definition is compounded by the fact that in many countries social protection is fragmented across different institutions and ministries. Coverage is complicated by inconsistent denominators and artificial separations between social protection components. Comprehensiveness is particularly complex and must be linked to the ability to assess needs. In addition, there is limited internationally comparable data on social protection in Asia. In this context, ADB’s SPI initiative provides a valuable contribution by building the capacity of national experts, developing measurement methodology, and generating comparable cross-sectional and time-series data.

Carraro closes with an inspiring example from the European Union. Since 1990 there has been a mutual information system on social protection that has ensured data exchange, harmonisation of classification, and comparison of social protection expenditure across countries in Europe. This is complemented by information on institutional settings, administrative, data and programme features. This data helps to inform social policies in countries of the European Union.


Enkhtsetseg Byambaa

Byambaa emphasised the importance of concrete and reliable data. There are challenges related to reliable data collection on social protection, including expenditure, number of beneficiaries, and other aspects. Byambaa used the example of double counting beneficiaries in Mongolia. The country has three million habitants, but its universal social health insurance is reported to have seven million beneficiaries. Therefore, the collection of more reliable data is crucial to avoid double counting and produce rigorous analyses.


Closing remarks

Markus Ruck

Ruck suggested that economic gains in Asia have been made in contexts characterised by persistent levels of vulnerability for workers without basic protection. Labour markets continue to be characterised by large informal economies with significant social protection gaps. Despite progress in recent decades, these rights have not become a reality for most people in Asia. Countries need to take primary responsibility for the implementation and financing of social protection. There are many success stories from different countries in the region that can serve as an inspiration to forge a better future. Ruck also says that the responsibility and cooperation of international agencies to support the countries in the region would help to achieve these goals. The collaboration between the ILO and ADB in the social protection field is a good example of an effective partnership in the region.

The recording of the webinar is available here, the slide presentation is here and the Q&A part is here.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
  • Social insurance
  • Labour market / employment programmes
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Programme implementation
    • Benefits payment / delivery
    • Informations Systems (MIS, Social Registry, Integrated Registry)
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Health
    • COVID-19
  • Labour market / employment
  • Resilience
  • Asia
The views presented here are the author's and not's