The webinar on What makes a social protection system?, held on 9 September 2021, scrutinized what it takes to implement a systems approach to social protection. Esther Schüring from the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences and Markus Loewe from the German Development Institute (GDI) in Bonn also used the occasion to launch the Handbook on Social Protection Systems which provides a comprehensive and in-depth discussion of the issue. To watch the full webinar, you can access the session’s recording and presentation slides.

Markus Loewe opened the event by not only describing the components but also the contents of the book. 67 renowned experts from practice and academia have collectively written 8 parts with 43 chapters and 18 case studies to give a comprehensive overview of the instruments, actors, and design features of social protection systems, as well as their application and impacts in practice in 776 pages. Coming from 22 countries, the discussions span from the Global South to the Global North. It is the first book centering around system building, which comprises but also goes beyond the harmonization across programmes and delivery mechanisms and external linkages to other policy fields. Thereby, it is a valuable resource for academics, students, and practitioners.

Loewe launched the event and explained that the handbook advocates for a more systemic approach to social protection. Social protection programmes should be as universal as possible, starting with social protection of the poorest. They should be better synchronized and coordinated but also differentiate between beneficiary groups – taking the respective needs and challenges of each group into consideration. In this context, social protection emerges as a key component of a social contract: a give and take, where the give of society is legitimisation of the government. Apart from that, each country must decide itself on the mix of social protection instruments.

Next, Esther Schüring welcomed four panelists for the discussion who have all written chapters and case studies for the handbook:

  • Prof. Dr. Chris de Neubourg - Professor of Public Policy and Management at Tilburg University and the Director of the Social Policy Research Institute
  • Veronika Wodsak -  Social Protection Policy Specialist at ILO
  • Benson Chisanga Lecturer on Social Protection at the University of Zambia
  • Garima Bhalla - Economist and Social Protection Specialist at FAO

When asked by Esther Schüring why the ILO has prioritized advising countries on a systems-based approach to social protection, Veronika Wodsak responded that a systematic tackling is needed to achieve progress towards the SDGs and in realizing the human right to social protection. She described that the four key features of a systems approach are (1) a legal basis and framework to create entitlements and obligations for the citizens to hold the state accountable; (2) a comprehensive life-cycle approach to address life-cycle risks such as maternity, unemployment and old age; (3) sustainable financing and delivery structures to be able to adapt to demographic evolution and other trends, requiring a social protection culture in the country and (4) coherence and coordination within the system but also across other relevant policy areas. 

Garima Bhalla agreed with Veronika Wodsak and added that not only the progress of moving from one social protection intervention to a bundle of interventions is decisive but also the functionality – the inclusiveness, responsiveness and effectiveness – of the system. Therein, she identified three pivotal moments. The first being the drafting of a social protection strategy through social dialogue and interaction with key stakeholders. When programs switch from a (partially) externally funded to a domestically financing is considered to be another turning point by Bhalla on the path towards a systems approach just as the introduction of a comprehensive social registry. Lastly, she described coherence to be of utmost importance for a systems approach, which can lead to the reduction of duplications and fragmentation, and the promotion of greater coordination. She pointed to Brazil as a good example for system-building, managing to make different Ministries, databases and eligibility criteria work together and achieve better outcomes as a result. 

Chris de Neubourg joined the previous speakers in recognizing the importance of a rights-based and life-cycle approach. According to him, countries in the Global South can adopt this approach from the Global South, but not much more. While it took the Global North 180 years to transform the social protection instruments to a system, countries in the Global South could achieve this within a decade, refraining from a piecemeal approach of adopting one programme per risk. De Neubourg joined Wodsak in stressing the importance of a social protection culture, building on the feeling that Covid-19 provoked of everybody being at risk. One key ingredient for sustainability is furthermore simplicity, in particular when it comes to shock responses.

In line with what Garima Bhalla voiced, the formulation of a Zambian national social protection policy in 2014 has been a major driver for the development of a social protection system. Benson Chisanga explained that all existing programmes have been grouped together in four social protection pillars ranging from social assistance and social security to livelihood and empowerment to protection of vulnerable groups. As good as this sounds, the Zambian lecturer acknowledges various challenges for Zambia on the path to a systems approach. Firstly, the legal basis for the social protection system as a whole is weak, in particular for non-contributory schemes. At the same time, the institutional coordination and information sharing within and across the sector is described as inadequate. Again, following Bhalla’s logic, he pointed out that a step towards coherence would be a comprehensive national social registry. A further improvement would be to increase the number of management staff and reduce the staff turnover by increasing wages and level of training in social protection. 

Finally, Esther Schüring asked all panelists what they think are the next steps in putting countries on a path towards system building. Garima Bhalla stated that her experience at FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) was that it is important to broaden the mindset of stakeholders in order to make them understand that social protection goes beyond social safety nets and that even the very poor can make contributions to economic growth. Veronika Wodsak emphasized Garima Bhalla’s point about mindsets. For her, social protection programs must be understood as entitlements and as an investment generating returns rather than costs. 

According to Bhalla and building on the previous speaker’s statements, social protection does not function in isolation. Rather it requires the building of solid coalitions with a shared vision. For this purpose, collecting disseminating evidence, and seizing windows of opportunity is critical. Bhalla also highlighted the importance of building capacity of frontline workers. Veronika Wodsak added that building trust and having a vision are the most crucial factors. She explained that it does not really matter where you start as long as you make sure to not promise anything that you cannot deliver. This was echoed by de Neubourg who recommended avoiding duplications of programs and responsibilities and to design simple systems to strengthen the social contract and avoid abuse of the system. 

After responding to questions from the audience (click here to see the full Q&A document), the interactive online version of the handbook was presented. The mobile phone application contains all chapters and case studies of the print version in addition to highlights and three key facts of the most important statements of each chapter as well as infoboxes with further information and links in selected chapters. Quizzes at the beginning of the chapters are an opportunity to delve further into the topics. There are also exciting interviews, podcasts, and animated videos with practitioners on some of the topics like cash plus programming, universal basic income grant, and misconceptions about cash transfers. We are eagerly awaiting the publication on October 31: Litello | Handbook on Social Protection Systems!

Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Governance and coordination
  • Programme design
  • Programme implementation
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disaster risk management / reduction
  • Global Development Agenda (SDGs / MDGs)
  • Global
  • Global
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