I always find debates around social protection strangely slippery. The language is fuzzy, the boundaries vague (what’s the difference between social protection and social policy? Depends who you ask). So a couple of weeks ago, I was secretly appalled when asked to give a 5 minute blogger’s input to a big IDS conference on ‘Social Protection for Social Justice’. Luckily I’m an early riser, so to avoid embarrassment I got up early to find out where this bit of the SP debate is heading, by reading all 57 abstracts. These academics are seriously productive, but they do tend to confuse outputs (papers) with outcomes (protecting anyone). Some impressions (with the caveat that it’s sometimes hard to judge a paper from the abstract – note to authors, please include your conclusions in the abstract as it may well be the only bit of your paper that gets read):
SP advocates (SPistas?) are all scrambling out of their siloes and developing ideas and programming around ‘SP plus’ – SP and climate change adaptation; SP and inequality; SP and gender empowerment; ‘transformative’ SP (me neither). The motive behind this is laudable – recognizing both that seeing SP simply as a technical exercise (eg cash transfers) misses out on its potential to change social relations for the better (or worse – see below), and that even supposedly apolitical SP systems have complex and important social and political repercussions – who gets the money? What do the neighbours think? How humiliating is the process?
So far so good, but it feels like SP still has a way to go:
1. Very little consideration of the politics: when do/don’t governments listen and take up all these excellent ideas and why? How politically sustainable are they – can you ensure that the next government doesn’t scrap its predecessor’s scheme? Does enshrining it in law or the constitution make it politically stickier? Or will a social pact/cross party agreement do the trick? All too often, advocates fall back on exhortation and an implicit notion that ‘we know what’s needed, and if you don’t agree you are either stupid, corrupt or both’. Not the best advocacy strategy.
2. SP remains an overwhelmingly state-led project. SPistas sometimes behave as if nothing else is going on – poor people are just sitting there waiting for the cash transfer person to knock on the door. But our research on the impact of the global economic crisis and studies like Portfolios of the Poor reveal a rich ecosystem of what could be termed ‘informal social protection’ – savings groups, churches, burial societies, microfinance groups, families and friends. It seems almost inevitable that the introduction of a state SP system is going to have a significant effect on this ecosystem, and that it could be positive (more to share around) or negative (targeting creates jealousy and erodes trust). One example of how this changes conventional wisdom – research in Zimbabwe found that recipients were much more likely to share food parcels with their neighbours (building social capital), whereas they tended to hang on to cash transfers, potentially causing division. A few papers started to explore this fascinating topic (e.g. this 3 country study by Ian MacAuslan and Nils Riemenschneider) but it’s clearly a crucial and neglected topic.
3. I’m all for creative ambiguity, fuzzwords etc, but the boundaries on SP are too blurred even for me. Does it comprise all social policy? Or go even wider – after all, the tax system is a vital tool of redistribution, so should that be included? For once, I would actually advocate a narrower definition so we all know that we are discussing roughly the same thing.
4. Out of the 57 papers there were remarkably few straightforward case studies, recording in plain English the views of poor people about the impacts (both good and bad) of different SP programmes on their lives. What case studies there were were either much more conceptual and less participatory than that, or demonstrated some spectacular researcher herding from Brazil’s Bolsa Escola (so last decade) to SP’s new poster child, India’s MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). Please can we hear more from ‘beneficiaries’, especially in low income countries?
Finally a nice cautionary note from the LSE’s Prof Thandika Mkandawire, warning against the deceptive simplicity of SP: ‘SP encourages the view that you can intervene in Africa and skip the elites to reach poor people directly – we have enough trouble doing it from our capitals, how can you hope to do it from London?!’ I’m sure the Africa Power and Politics Programme would approve.