Hardly Anyone Is Too Poor to Share: A basic level of social protection is affordable nearly everywhere

Author:Michael Cichon
Position:Fellow of the International Council on Social Welfare and its immediate past president. He is a former professor of social protection at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance at the United Nations University in Maastricht, Netherlands
14 FINANCE & DEVELOPMENT | December 2018
lack the resources to abol-
ish poverty, it lacks the right priorities.” So said
Juan Somavía, former director genera l of the
International Labour Orga nization (ILO), in 1999.
We may have made progress in recent decades,
but the world remains a miserable place for more
than half of its population. Each person in that
majority suffers from at least one of three hum an-
made or at least human-tolerated societal plag ues:
gross inequality, debilitating inse curity, and inhu-
mane poverty. We have known for more than a
century what ca n be done to make things better.
Social protection effectively a nd swiftly reduce s
inequality and povert y through tra nsfers in cash
and kind. A solid basic level of socia l protection is
affordable and implementable nearly every where.
It can be achieved now or—at lea st after some
investment in good governance— fairly soon.
For decades, the community of nations has had a
global ethical compass when it comes to social pro-
tection. Since the ILO’s 1944 recommendations on
income security and medical care—and the 1948
Universal Declaration of Human Rights—social pro-
tection has been recognized as a human right. More
recently, the ILO’s 2012 Recommendation R202
concerning national social protection floors and the
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted at a
United Nations summit in 2015, have given concrete
content to the right to social protection.
R202 provides guida nce on introducing basic
social protection, defining t he twin objectives of
income and health securit y as the ability to access
all essential goods and service s. is requires a
balance of cash a nd direct provision of service s.
e overriding objective is to achieve universal
protection for all who need it.
e SDGs likewise pursue a broad a genda
including social tra nsfers, health care, education,
and other essential ser vices. e main social protec-
tion targets are to “implement nationally appropriate
social protection systems a nd measures for all’’ and
to “achieve universal health coverage, including
financia l risk protection.’’
What has kept us from ma king greater progress
toward socia l justice?
Publicly financed social protection transfers were
often portrayed as unsustainable and detrimental
to economic development. Many societies’ and
governments’ economic and development strategies
were based on economic myths—among them the
alleged trade-off between economic performance
and redistribution, and the theory that the trickle-
down effect would automatically reduce poverty
and inequality as economies develop. Reality and
research show that these are merely myths. Virtually
all developed economies have substantial social
protection systems, with expenditure of 20 to 27
percent of GDP and more. ere is no proof that
they have sacrificed much growth as they com-
bated poverty, inequality, and insecurity. If the
trickle-down myth were true, we would not see
wide variation in poverty and inequality between
countries with similar per capita GDP. Markets—
left to themselves—do not develop conduits for
redistribution other than transfers of wealth or
sharing of income within family or kinship groups.
However, the knockout myth that has often stifled
progress in social protection is that it is not affordable
Hardly Anyone Is Too Poor to Share
A basic level of social protection is affordable nearly everywhere
Michael Cichon

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