In your own way

Understanding Social Protection: a Conversation with Stephen Devereux and Keetie Roelen

“We have reached a point where we now know that social protection is here to stay …and this provides a solid base to go forward.”

Social protection, despite being a relatively new term in development, has drawn a lot of attention, debates and discussions. Many governments, international organisations, donors and NGOs have adopted social protection into their policy agenda in recent years. The Centre for Social Protection at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), founded in 2005, is a global hub for developing cutting-edge thinking on social protection. Say for Development had the opportunity to have a conversation with two co-Directors of the Centre, Stephen Devereux* and Keetie Roelen*.


Say for Development: Social protection is a relatively new ‘term’ in development studies. What are the ideas behind social protection and how did it emerge in practice?

Stephen: The term ‘social protection’ started to be used in the late 1990s. There were programmes that were going on since the 1950s like public works and school feeding, but they were not called social protection until the 1990s.

In a narrow sense, social protection can be defined as social transfers that support poor people to survive, and protect the vulnerable against risks. A broader definition includes making sure that people are protected against a broader range of vulnerabilities like social exclusion. In that sense, we can see social protection as including access to services, productive assets to make a living, as well as cash transfers, school feeding, public works, food aid, pensions, and so forth.

Historically, I think social protection has two sources. One strand is social security, which came mostly from Europe, and it was imported to Africa, Asia and Latin America during the colonial period. Social protection is basically designed to reach people who do not have formal social security. Another strand is emergency  relief and food aid programmes set up as safety nets to help people survive food crises and shocks. The latter became more formalised in various types of social protection these days.

Say for Development: Many advocate for universal social protection as a right, while the governments of low-income countries face financial constraints and competition for resources. What are your opinions on this?

Keetie: Well, it depends on what you define as ‘universal’, whether universal means a common basic income or a social protection for all of the poor and vulnerable. In cases where there is limited financial resource, social protection programmes targeted at the poor and vulnerable are better to consider purely from a budget perspective. Within that, there is also the discussion about how to get there from a situation where there are different programmes but limited coverage. Maybe not the whole country or all groups are covered, but I guess that is where the term progressive realisation comes in – taking steps towards expansion in terms of the number of people or the proportion of the eligible population included in one programme, as well as across programmes so that it becomes more a system.

Stephen: I think there are two elements here. One is about rights-based and another is about coverage. You can have a universal programme, which is not rights-based, or on the other hand, a programme that is not for everybody but if you are eligible then you have an entitlement to it. Rights and coverage are two separate issues although sometimes these two get conflated into one issue. Governments, especially in low-income countries, face both financial and political constraints. On one hand, they cannot afford universal social protection because of low financial budgets; and on the other hand, they have political constraints as they are very scared of ‘rights’ because giving rights means that they can be taken to the court and this creates all kinds of accountability issues that they have been trying to avoid in many cases.

Say for Development: Many argue that some social protection measures such as cash transfers induce dependency. What do you think about that? How can social protection be more ‘empowering’?

Keetie: I do not agree with that argument because I do not really think social protection creates dependency. There might always be a minority group of people who do not want to work, or use the cash on things that we do not want them to use it on. But I do not think that it creates disincentives on a large-scale, and most of the programmes are not generous enough to do that. Even if they are generous, people want to be part of the society, be valuable and contribute because it is also part of an identity. So there is a question on how social protection can be more transformative and push the norms (such as gender roles or other roles) but I do not think there is a necessary distinction between dependency and transformation.

Say for Development: A few Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relate to social protection, which one do you think is the most challenging and how should we address it? 

Stephen: From a social protection point of view, the SDG10 about inequality is the most challenging. I do not think there is much evidence about social protection having a big impact on inequality. Basically, the transfer is usually very small and the coverage is also limited, and reducing inequality requires not just giving to poor people but also the rich taking more responsibilities by paying their taxes. More progressive tax rates need to come back here. So, in regards to sustainable development, inequality is a big challenge because social protection on its own can make a small improvement in the lives of some poor people but it is not going to reduce national inequality. That would require other interventions and pro-poor policies.

Say for Development: Taking note of that what Stephen said, what is the future of social protection? Can you share your thoughts about its opportunities and challenges? 

Keetie: One opportunity relates to this point on inequality, there is much more discussion on linking social protection with the other side of the coin which is distribution and taxation. There is now more recognition that these need to go hand in hand if you want to make a real difference. Taxing the poor does not make a big difference in terms of resource mobilisation but it does add to the regressivity of the system. I also think there is an opportunity in the fact that it is more and more recognised that cash transfers can do a lot but not everything. You see different initiatives and research coming up that are trying to find out what is it that we can do to complement cash transfers in order to improve the impact on children and vulnerable groups.

Stephen: To add to that, I think we have reached a point where we now know that social protection is here to stay and that it is not a development fad that would disappear after a few years, and this provides a solid base to go forward. But I still think there are massive financial constraints in order to achieve really comprehensive coverage for the poor. We will need to find more resources and this is also at a time when there are a lot of kickbacks against social protection all over the world, even in the richest countries. These kickbacks include the welfare cuts and negative perceptions towards the poor, which have implications for political will to subsidise social protection programmes. So, there is a potential political risk now that some of the gains will be lost and there might be a period of not much improvement. Even in countries like Brazil or South Africa, where there had been good expansion, they seem to have reached the limits of financial capacity and political will to expand their programmes further. In other countries, there is a still big financing gap. We might see improvements in some countries, but challenges will remain in others.

Say for Development: The Centre for Social Protection has been operating at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) for more than ten years now. As two of the Directors of the Centre, could you please share with us the work of the Centre?

Keetie: Firstly, the Centre works on knowledge creation, which is the conceptual part in thinking about various approaches to social protection, such as transformative social protection, sensitive social protection, and inclusive social protection. The Centre developed these approaches. Secondly, the more practical side is the demand-driven research work, like evaluations, studies for our partners like UNICEF, Save the Children, WFP and FAO. The third component is capacity building programmes, including offering tailored training courses on request here in the UK as well as in-country. The fourth is maintaining a network, mostly through our newsletters and the communication around that, and the conferences we organised in the past, namely, about social protection and graduation in 2014, and social protection and social justice in 2011.

Say for Development: Are there any particular works or projects of the Centre that you would like to share about?

Stephen: Going back a little bit, the Centre has been around for ten years. We had various phases, so in the early days  it was very much around the conceptualisation of social protection when it was still quite a new area and the definition of it was not quite clear. We developed the frameworks of ‘transformative social protection’, ‘adaptive social protection’, relating to climate change, and more recently ‘inclusive social protection’, which relates to the SDGs. This conceptual work has always been ongoing. Right now we are looking at potential new areas to work on like urban social protection and informal social protection. So we pick up on themes and work with them for a few years. At all times, we try to be at the cutting-edge on thinking about social protection.

*Stephen Devereux is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. His research interests include food security, famine, rural livelihoods, social protection and poverty reduction issues. 

*Keetie Roelen is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. Her research interests include the dynamics of (child) poverty, social protection and the linkages between child protection and social protection.


Say for Development is thankful to Stephen and Keetie for sharing their thoughts on the topic as well as the work at the Centre for Social Protection. This conversation was prepared and conducted by Sarabe Chan.


Feature Photograph: Stephen Devereux and Keetie Roelen in a conversation with Say for Development. 



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