The SDG Lab and UN Geneva Library & Archives collaborate to bring you a podcast mini-series exploring COVID-19’s effects on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.)
The UN Library & Archives Geneva in collaboration with the SDG Lab explore how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted sustainable development solutions. Following the first and second episodes, on digitalization and connectivity and the link between the environment and social resilience, in this third episode, we discuss social protection. With guests Christina Behrendt, Head of the Social Policy Unit at the International Labour Organization, and Dr. Kate Philip, Programme Lead for the Presidential Employment Stimulus in South Africa, we reflect on how social protection systems contribute to society’s wellbeing.
Did it take a global crisis to highlight the critical role of an integrated and robust social protection system?
The Covid-19 pandemic has created an opportunity to reflect on how to prepare strong social protection policies for future events. Christina Behrendt explains that while countries have different definitions of social protection systems, what many have in common is a set of measures that support and protect people throughout their lives, including income security, healthcare, and pensions.
The pandemic, according to Behrendt, has highlighted existing social protection gaps and the “devastating consequences” of unequal protection schemes, particularly for workers in informal economies. The ILO counted more than 1,700 social protection measures taken in response to the crisis in almost every country globally, illustrating the importance of social protection systems not just in response to crises.
In South Africa, the pandemic laid bare how dependent many communities are on the informal sector for food supplies. The state created temporary relief schemes to workers who lost income but did not have the systems in place to reach and support the informal sector, according to Dr. Kate Philip.
The government then instituted the social relief distress grant through technical innovation that reached millions of the poorest people with urgent social needs. South Africa’s response to the Covid pandemic was shaped, in part, by its experience with HIV. In areas where HIV was prevalent, South Africa had introduced community health workers, which were supported using a public employment modality. That same strategy was “a key part of South Africa’s arsenal against the pandemic,” Philip said. South Africa also included work in the care sector and early childhood development as part of its public employment strategy. For instance, mainly women work in this sector, and for the first time, they had rights and their work had social recognition; it also provided a pathway to integration and formal economy.
Examples from other parts of the world have shown that employment and social protection policies should work together to be sustainable. In Togo, for instance, prior to the pandemic, the government had not reached workers in the informal economy but, during the Covid crisis, a cash transfer initiative was created through a phone app to support their needs amidst the Covid crisis. Behrendt said states must have a long-term view of transferring informal workers and people with an irregular status to the formal sector to provide equal and adequate protection to all members of society, including access to healthcare.
According to ILO in 2020, developing countries should invest about 1.2 trillion US dollars into social protection schemes. The two main approaches to social protection systems include a universal scheme or a targeted approach, and people can learn more about how to design social protection for their country by visiting The Social Protection Toolbox designed by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
Social protection, according to Behrendt, is a key component to reach the SDGs, as it contributes to their social, economic, and environmental dimensions. While there is growing recognition that investment in universal and comprehensive social protection systems is needed, economic and political dimensions must be thought out. Some countries are facing growing inflation rates and high poverty levels, which requires additional support, including from the broader community and international financial institutions. A common approach is needed “where all people have access to adequate social protection,” said Behrendt.
South Africa’s Social Relief of Distress grant was an important lesson as, for the first time, it narrowed the gap of inequality and poverty. Now, according to Philip, stakeholders are debating whether the scheme should be institutionalized.
“This crisis has really put the spotlight on some of our pre-existing challenges and social protection gaps,” Philips said. South Africa is finding innovative methods to involve communities in creating forms of work that contribute to the common good and “puts the social back into social protection and involves all kinds of actors in the kinds of work and activities that can contribute to resilience, to social cohesion, and to dealing with the crises of poverty and inequality that we face,” she added. “There's a lot of source for optimism that comes out of the crisis.”