The Universal social protection in the context of the SDGs – where are we now? webinar took place on 18 July 2019. This was the first webinar of the USP2030 webinar series organised by, in collaboration with the IPC-IG.             

The achievement of Universal Social Protection (USP) has become part of a broader social trend, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, specially the target 1.3 ‘Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable’. The purpose of this webinar was to explore the concept and definitions of USP, discuss technical and institutional aspects and set the scene for the next webinars of the series.

The panellists focused their discussion on the following issues: 1) the macro challenges related to the expansion of social protection coverage, focusing on global challenges and opportunities that are specific to the SDGs' context; 2) the concept of USP2030, as well as the technical and institutional aspects; and 3) the current global progress of USP.

The event was moderated by Eppu Mikkonen-Jeanneret (Senior Adviser, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland), alongside presenters Anush Bezhanyan (Sector Manager, Social Protection, World Bank Group), Valérie Schmitt, (Deputy Director, Social Protection Department, International Labour Organization, (ILO)), and Anna McCord (Research Associate, Overseas Development institute (ODI)).


You can watch the webinar recording here and access the webinar presentation here.


The concept of USP by ILO

Valérie Schmitt, from ILO, preluded the webinar by contextualising the concept of USP as part of the SDGs. USP is reflected in five Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SGD 1. No Poverty; SDG 3. Good Health and Well-being; SDG 5. Gender Equality; SGD 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth; and SDG 10 Reducing Inequality.

As described in the SDG target 1.3, social protection refers to not only one scheme, but a whole set of measures that will address the questions of income security and access to health care and social services for all. Hence, the idea of universality is central to the goal of providing access to, at least minimum level of, social protection for all.


ILO’s contribution to SDG1.3 and USP

As a custodian for the SDG indicator 1.3.1, ILO updates the World Social Protection database every year and provides statistics on coverage and expansion on a regular basis. The ILO provides support to countries in building their social protection systems based on international social security standards that guide the development of social protection systems, such ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (n. 202). Social protection floors can be implemented through universal schemes, social assistance, targeted benefits to the poorest segments of the population, and social insurance.


Three aspects of universal social protection

In this context, USP refers to universal coverage, in terms of persons protected; comprehensive protection, in terms of risks covered; and adequacy of protection, in terms of goods and services included. This means that benefits should be available to address different risks that a person can face during a lifetime and allow for a decent life.


USP2030 Partnership

In 2016, the ILO and the World Bank, with the support of other institutions, launched the USP2030 global partnership for social protection. As a platform to promote the expansion of social protection and implementation of universal social protection for all, the USP2030 partnership aims to join forces to exchange knowledge and good practices to support countries in achieving USP. See below their priority actions and Call to Action.



Definition of USP by the World Bank

Anush Bezhanyan, from the WB, highlighted that the idea of universality should be understood as a service that is available when and where it is needed to all citizens. Moreover, universality is progressive; therefore, targeting means prioritisation, not exclusion.

The panellist also emphasised that it is important that social protection systems are nationally defined and embedded in the country’s social contract. This protection can be provided through a range of mechanisms, such as cash or in-kind benefits, contributory or non-contributory schemes, active labour market programmes and other programmes to enhance skills and access to jobs.


WB’s strategy: access and coverage

The WB’s strategy rests on three pillars: resilience, ensuring against the impact of different shocks; equity, protecting against destitution and poverty; and opportunity, promoting human capital and access to productive work through labour market programmes.



In addition to the aim of universality and comprehensiveness, the WB’ strategy also defines that countries should consolidate social protection systems to be:

  • Inclusive: everyone is protected, including persons in the informal economy.
  • Adequate: benefits and services are regular, of quality, and at suitable level.
  • Sustainable: financial resources raised and allocated are aligned with programme outcomes, demographic patterns, and economic development.
  • Internally and externally coherent: policies are balanced with other related sector policies (social, economic, etc.), as well as aligned with existing SP programmes.
  • Responsive: flexible enough to consider changing needs, e.g. socioeconomic, sociodemographic, natural or political developments.


WB’s contribution to SDG 1.3. and USP

The WB contributes towards the achievement of the SDG target 1.3 and USP by providing:

  • Investments and policy loans
  • Advisory support to governments all around the world
  • Global knowledge products, such as global databases
  • Global partnerships, such as the USP2030 Partnership, the Social Protection Inter-Agency Cooperation Board (SPIAC-B), the Inter-Agency Social Protection Assessments (ISPA) partnership, among others.

Anush Bezhanyan finished her presentation by mentioning their involvement in the USP2030 Partnership and reiterating the core principles of USP: (1) protection throughout life cycle; (2) universal coverage; (3) national ownership; (4) sustainable and equitable financing; and (5) participation and social dialogue.


ODI study: ‘Indicators to measure social protection performance’

Anna McCord presented the key findings of a study developed by ODI, which looked at different indicators to measure social protection performance and assessed some of the limitations of the indicator for the SDG target 1.3.


Indicator challenges

The indicator to measure the progress of the achievement of SDG target 1.3 is defined as the ‘proportion of population covered by social protection floors/systems, by sex, distinguishing children, unemployed persons, older persons, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, new-borns, work-injury victims and the poor and the vulnerable’. As an outcome indicator that focuses on coverage, it relies on national data and requires an agreement on how to define social protection, which can be problematic due to differences in how it is conceptualised. Also, it requires agreement on how to conceptualise and measure the concept of coverage.

Nonetheless, there are several challenges related to data collection and analysis. One of the biggest issues is inconsistency of data across countries, which makes it difficult to reach a comprehensive and comparable picture of social protection performance.


Adequacy to measure progress on USP?

In terms of the suitability of the SDG 1.3. indicator, the indicator is quantitative by nature, looking at input in terms of resources and output in terms of coverage, leaving out results-oriented and adequacy measures. This has implications in terms of capturing the quality of social protection provision.

The following actions were suggested to address this issue:

  • Donors and governments could develop and adopt complementary indicators in their work, to support the realisation of 1.3.
  • Indicator selection and definitions can be harmonised across agencies in line with the Paris and Busan principles on aid effectiveness and donor coordination.


Current progress on USP

Current available data shows coverage is trivial in many countries, posing a major challenge to the achievement of SDG target 1.3. by 2030. Anna McCord concluded by proposing the following improvements moving forward:

  • Effective use of scarce development resources.
  • Better donor coordination and harmonisation at country level.
  • Active promotion of USP intentions at country level.
  • Realisation of the institutional commitment to Aid Effectiveness



After the presentations, the moderator posed a few questions that prompted an engaged discussion: 


  1. Is Universal Social Protection better at addressing ‘leave no one behind’ than poverty targeted programs?

Anna McCord emphasised that there is an international institutional commitment to universal social protection, and suggested that the question should focus on how poverty targeting can contribute to the outcome of progressive realisation of USP. Poverty targeting is associated with rationing of access and small-scale provision rather than progressive expansion with redistribution and equity. Therefore, there is a risk with the poverty targeting approach, unless it is clearly being used to promote the underlying goal of universal provision.

Valérie Schmitt mentioned that USP should not be opposed to targeted programmes. Targeted social assistance is just one mechanism within an overall strategy to achieve USP. Nevertheless, many countries have targeted programmes for the very poor and social insurance for the employed, including sometimes those in informality, but lack mechanisms to protect a large group that is outside these two categories.

Anush Bezhanyan emphasised that targeting and universality can co-exist. The pursuit for universality is aspirational for every country, but when facing coverage and adequacy challenges, finding sustainability in targeted programmes that cover the most vulnerable can be a stepping stone towards progressively achieving USP.


2. Is Universal Social Protection affordable? Are poverty-targeted programs a second best, but necessary, solution to fiscal space issues?

Valérie Schmitt mentioned that, for USP to be affordable, countries should progressively expand their fiscal space in order to increasingly finance the level of benefits to guarantee access to basic needs. The financial space can be expanded in many ways, such as by reallocation of public expenditure, improving transparency, introducing new taxes to generate savings, expanding contributory social security programmes to informal workers etc.


3. What are the challenges ahead?

Anush Bezhanyan emphasised the need to continue working towards USP as a common goal at the global level, and then move the coordination efforts from global to country level, where USP actually needs to be achieved.

Anna McCord pointed out two main issues that make the urgency for expanding USP even more pressing: increased deficiency in the labour market and environmental challenges. The panellist argued that failing to address the poverty of the working poor is not only a political challenge but also a challenge for social stability. It is important to recognise that social protection has a significant role to play in global stabilisation.


The webinar closed with an interesting Q&A session, accessible here.



This blog post is part of the USP2030 Webinar Series, which brings together the summaries of webinars organised by IPC-IG and on the topic. Please join the USP2030 Webinar Series Online Community if you are interested in following the most recent discussions on the topic. If you have any thoughts on this webinar summary, we would love to hear from you. Please add your comments below!

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
  • Social insurance
  • Labour market / employment programmes
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Coverage
    • Expenditure and financing
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social Protection Floors
  • Universal Social Protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Global Development Agenda (SDGs / MDGs)
  • Global
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's