Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences and works on social development,
poverty and globalisation. She coordinates the global network of
Global Social Justice.
protection is back on the agenda. This is very good news, since the
poverty reduction policies which were promoted since the 1990’s
have proven to be insufficient. In fact, as it could be seen in the
continuing structural adjustment programmes in Third World countries,
and today in Europe with austerity, they were meant to weaken the
existing social protection programmes. Today, the ILO, the European
Commission as well as the World Bank are making new proposals for
social protection. What does it mean and how can civil society react?
Washington Consensus policies
social as poverty reduction programmes may seem to be, such as
proposed by the World Bank in 1990, they were in fact nothing less
than a perpetuating of the Washington Consensus policies. They
conceptualized poverty as an individual problem, they did not include
the income deficit in their definition, they ignored inequality and
did not examine the roots of the poverty problem. In short, they
ignored the impoverishment process and even strengthened it by
privatizing and weakening the already modest social policies of Third
World countries, such as education, health care, housing, water
services, etc. According to the dogmas of neoliberal philosophy,
these services all had to be provided by the marketFor a full analysis of these policies, see Mestrum, F., Mondialisation et pauvreté. De l’utilité de la pauvreté dans le nouvel ordre mondial, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002. For a short summary, see Mestrum, F. And Özden, M., The Fight against Poverty and Human rights, CETIM, Geneva, http://www.cetim.ch/en/documents/report_11.pdf..
are various reasons why poverty was put on the international
political agenda in 1990. After the ‘lost decade’ for development
of the 1980s and its social consequences, the World Bank and the IMF
had to legitimize their policies and give globalization a human face.
Secondly, by demanding that poor people produce the economic growth
that is deemed to be necessary, no serious redistribution of incomes
is needed. This situation allowed for development organizations to
continue backing the official policies, arguing that, at least, they
were doing something for poor people. Furthermore, putting the label
of ‘poverty reduction’ on neo-liberal policies allowed for hiding
the disastrous consequences that these policies continued to have. In
short, instead of protecting people against unregulated markets, poor
people were encouraged to participate in these same markets.
results are now clear for everyone: the only countries where poverty
seriously declined, China and India, were those who were not obliged
to follow the recipes of Bretton Woods institutions. The countries
where poverty slowly declined, such as the Latin American ones, were
those where leftwing governments departed from the imposed policies,
and where the income was finally integrated into the poverty
definition. President Lula da Silva of Brazil organised a
‘conditional cash transfer’ scheme that gave poor people a modest
allowance, non-contributive social pensions were introduced, school
meals were provided, and so on. In Africa, none of all these measures
were taken. There, the number of extremely poor people almost doubled
between 1981 and 2005.
we have to mention a final reason for the introduction of poverty
reduction policies. What we know from historical studies on poverty,
is that this consensual issue never comes on the agenda for reasons
specific to the existing poverty. In fact, poor people are never the
main target of poverty policies, they only are, at best, their
‘collateral beneficiaries’Simmel, G., Les pauvres, Paris, PUF, 1998 .. The main objective of poverty
reduction policies is legitimizing power and reproducing the economic
system by the production of growth, the improvement of productivity,
the exploitation of the last ‘resources’ to be exploited, in this
case human resources. The ‘human capital’ that has to be
developed and invested in, also has to yield returns, which can be
presented as a social return, but is in fact purely economic. This is
also the reasoning behind all ‘activation’ policies that are now
promoted at the European level. All adult and able people have to
work, even if there are no jobs and even if most of social needs are
The objective of social protection
re-emergence of social protection on the international political
agenda is good news then. Especially in Western Europe, where welfare
states were well developed, they allowed for seriously preventing
poverty. Without social protection, the poverty rate in the EU would
not be 17 % but something like 26 %Eurostat, Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, 2010 edition, Brussels, 2010..
to tax policies, social protection has traditionally been a strong
instrument not only to give people social and economic security, but
also to redistribute incomes.
all countries, all over the world had some kind of social protection
in the past, it is true that in most Third World countries, they were
very modest and mostly limited to the military, civil servants and
people working in the formal sector, all together a minority of the
population. Only in some Latin American and South-East Asian
countries they were better developed and comparable to the Western
European ones. However, to-day, they are all threatened or severely
weakened already. Neo-liberal policies consider them indeed as
non-core state activities, which means they are better left to the
market. Poverty reduction policies however, do belong to the core of
state missions. This explicit message of the World Bank can be
translated as ‘yes’ to civil and political rights, but ‘no’
to social and economic rights.
order to see whether the newly proposed social protection will be
able to play the same role as the old ones, we have to better examine
what exactly they want to achieve and whether they will be able to go
beyond poverty reduction policies.
exercise is rather deceiving.
the ILO, the European Commission and the report of the advisory group
to the ILO, chaired by Michelle Bachelet, all emphasize that social
protection is a human right, they rapidly switch to all the economic
advantages that are linked with social protection:
protection is seen as a countercyclical stabilizer, it allows to
unlock productive capacity, it contributes to labour productivity, it
offers a solid foundation for resilient forms of growth and it
fosters macro-economic stability. It promotes productive economic
activity and entrepreneurship. It encourages labour market
participationSocial Protection Floor for a Fair and Inclusive Globalization, Report of the Advisory Group chaired by Michelle Bachelet, Geneva, 2011..
protection is an investment in people that empowers them to adjust to
changes in the economy and in the labour market, and social security
systems are said to help stimulate aggregate demand in times of
crisis and beyondILO, Text of the Recommendation concerning national floors of social protection, Provisional Record, 14A, Geneva, 2012..
protection can reduce the impact of shocks, can foster market-based
solutions and can mitigate risks without producing significant
distortion or disincentivesEuropean Commission, Social Protection for Inclusive Development, European Development Report 2010, Brussels, 2011..
for the World Bank, it now falls back to its proposals of 2000 and
social protection as ‘risk management’Holzmann & Jorgensen, Gestion du risque social: cadre théorique de la protection sociale, Document de travail 006 sur la protection sociale, World Bank, 2000.. ‘Risks’ and ‘shocks’
are considered unavoidable, you can only mitigate them or, if they
happen, try to cope with them. This is a task for individuals and
families, for the market and in the end, also for the state. In fact,
it builds on an equation between economic shocks and natural
catastrophes, arguing that things ‘just happen’, that they are
‘acts of God’. This is why the World Bank is now promoting
‘resilience’ as protection against these shocks in order to be
able to rapidly ‘bounce back’World Bank, Resilience, Equity and Opportunity, Washington, The World Bank, 2012.. Compared to its 2000 approach, it
now does add labour to its strategy, which certainly has to be
welcomed. It also clearly states that ‘
social protection is central to growth promoting reforms’ which
are thus made politically feasibleWorld Bank, op. cit., p. X..
short, while most organizations do not forget the human rights
dimension of social protection, it is mainly as an economic strategy
that it is made, which appears to be perfectly compatible with
for the scope of social protection, most organisations do not say
much about it. It is clear that education and health care are part of
it. Only the ILO speaks of a ‘
defined set of goods and services, constituting essential health care, including maternity care […], basic income security for children […], for persons in active age who are unable to earn sufficient income, in particular in cases of sickness, unemployment, maternity and disability, and for older persons’ILO, op. cit., § 5, 9..
The ILO also established the link with its Convention on Social
Security of 1952 and its Campaign for the extension of social
is where the question of coverage comes in and where we have to ask
whether the new proposals can go beyond poverty reduction.
ILO and the Bachelet Report clearly speak of universal rights for
everyone, though they also say this will not be for tomorrow.
Universalism should be the objective, so it is said, but its social
protection floors should be for ‘
all in need’
which again creates uncertainty and will necessarily imply specific
targeting. The European Commission also speaks of universalism but at
the same time of ‘
all citizens who meet the eligibility criteria … a well defined category of citizens’.
The World Bank is even clearer: ‘
Well designed, targeted social protection’, ‘
resilience for the vulnerable, equity for the poor, opportunities for all’World Bank, op. cit., p. XII and 1..
this leaves many questions unanswered. The ILO clearly has the
greatest potential for offering a real social protection, though that
will not happen immediately. The World Bank sticks to its neo-liberal
philosophy and sees social protection mainly as an instrument to
create some coherence in its existing projects. The European
Commission is somewhere in the middle and can go in the direction of
the ILO as well as of the World Bank. These proposals are certainly
better than what we currently have, especially because most of them
are rights-based and do include the income dimension. But their
implementation will have to show whether they can really make a
difference. If social protection remains, in the same way as poverty
reduction did, that is, purely within an economic realm, its effects
will be limited.
Protecting society, people and the planet
world, and particularly the European Union, is in a rather bad shape.
The economic crisis is far from over and austerity policies are
creating a huge social crisis. Unemployment is at an unprecedented
level, poverty is rising, income and wealth inequality have reached
our welfare states are in crisis, it is not because of a lack of
resources, today’s world has never been so rich before. The problem
is that in the past decades, some countries have become immensely
rich, while others are still as poor as a century ago. Colonialism
and neo-liberalism have impoverished some countries and allowed for
an unprecedented concentration of wealth in others.
we want to build ‘another world’, that is, a world with more
social justice, new policies are needed. They will imply just taxes,
at the national and international level, as well as social policies
beyond poverty reduction, able to reduce inequalities. In other
words, we will need a broad social protection.
rights-based social protection is a good start, though it would help
if we could also broaden the human rights agenda. Neo-liberalism, as
we have seen, only recognizes civil and political rights. Economic
and social rights are ignored, whereas they should be broadened and
be seen as both individual and collective. This is important, since
neo-liberalism also ignores ‘societies’ and only recognizes
individuals. But social protection is a collective undertaking, based
on insurance and solidarity. It means the acceptance of mutual
interdependence and common responsibility. Social protection can
never exist without the recognition of both individual and
collective rights. This is all the more important for the third
generation of human rights, that is, the specific solidarity rights,
such as the right to development, the right to a clean environment,
the right to ‘the commons’… A broad social protection, able not
only to protect individuals, but also to protect society as such, to
promote social cohesion and social integration, will need to
emphasize this collective dimension.
condition for a broad social protection agenda, is to take into
account the way our economic and social world has changed in the past
half century. Full employment, on which the Western European welfare
states were based, does not exist anymore; women participate fully in
the labour market; migration has blurred the lines between citizens
and non-citizens; the ‘precariat’ is creating a group of
‘denizens’ without rights and without any belongingStanding, G., The Precariat. The new dangerous class, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011., new risks
have been added to the traditional ones. In neo-liberal poverty
policies, workers are seen as having ‘vested interests’, and are
opposed to ‘the poor’ whose interests are supposed to be
broad social protection can only mean protection for all, which means
we have to develop a new concept in which the traditional social
security, as well as social assistance may find their place. But it
also has to include labour rights, some environmental rights and
then will social protection indeed be able to protect societies, the
people and the planet. We need to offer all a life in dignity, with
economic and social security. In fact, it means that also economic
policies will have to be closely linked to social protection: its
distribution policies, the organisation and distribution of
productive capacities, the organisation of labour, and so on. In that
way, social protection can indeed help the economy, especially in its
transition to a social and ecological endeavour.
Universalism and ‘the commons’
‘the commons’ has become a basic tenet of every ecological
discourse. It allows for countering the arguments of those who want
to privatize nature. Water, forests, the oceans, land … are owned
by all of us and cannot be provided or managed by the market. Only
with common regulations can we take care of their just and fair
there are also man-made ‘commons’ that should benefit to all.
Some call them ‘global public goods’. For the World Bank, the
primary example is macro-economic stability. For others it is gender
equality or poverty eradication. The oldest man-made ‘commons’ or
public goods are our public services, such as education, health care,
housing, water and electricity services, etc.
is one of the major and common characteristics of all existing
welfare states. They are the goods that have been taken out of the
market, that have been ‘de-commodified’ in order to allow for all
people to have access to them. As T.H. Marshall explained, this is
closely linked to the introduction of social and economic rightsMarshall, T.H., Class, Citizenship and Social development, New York, Doubleday and Company, 1965..
By giving these rights and this access to public services to all, the
civil and political rights can have a concrete meaning. Economic
inequality can indeed undermine civil and political rights and makes
the political equality of citizenship rather meaningless. With social
and economic rights, the economic inequality becomes politically
irrelevant. That is why public services have to be guaranteed by
public authorities and have to be provided for free, even if, in
certain cases, they can be provided by private entities.
considering them ‘commons’ it also is clear that public services,
just like other social and economic rights, have to be universal.
This is necessary, in the very first place as a principled position.
If we talk about the preservation of social life by social
protection, than all have to be included, the rich as well as the
poor. It means we all live in and share one planet. It means the end
of segregated cities and housing.
also means that social protection mechanisms will have to organize
direct and indirect solidarity, community solidarity with those we
know and with whom we share our daily life, but also with those we do
not know but with whom we share a world to live in, an environment to
care for, a sense of belonging to each other and to this planet. The
anonymous – organic (Durkheim) - solidarity of the current welfare
states is one of the major achievements of modern times that should
not be lost.
third reason for universalism is that all have to contribute and to
benefit from social protection and public services. The old rule that
targeted mechanisms to the poor are not only very expensive but also
less efficient and in the end lead to poor policies, is certainly
correct. The most important element however is that the better off in
society not only have to contribute to the social protection of the
poorer members, but also that they have to benefit themselves.
Systems exclusively for the poor make poor systems. As for the
regressive character of universal systems – the rich benefitting
disproportionately from some allowances – this can easily be
corrected through the tax system.
fourth reason in favour of universalism is linked to the state
itself. The social protection we need is not a solidarity mechanism
within the group of poor people, but an institutionalized state
system to which all contribute, even if some part can be implemented
by civil society or indeed by the market. It is the state which will
have to guarantee and monitor the access to all rights of all members
‘universalism’ has some important consequences. For goods that
all people need in order to survive and have a life in dignity, it is
impossible to introduce fees. Neo-liberalism, when it introduced its
structural adjustment programmes, also stated that user fees for
services were necessary. The consequences were very clear: people did
not send their children to school anymore, they did not go to the
doctor anymore, and many services had to be organized by volunteers,
or in other words, by women who added a third community task to their
household work and their labour market activities.
when it became clear that user fees were not a good solution, ‘social
tariffs’ were introduced. Most privatized services, for water and
electricity for instance, become much more expensive and investors
were not interested in them unless they can raise tariffs and make
high profits. These price hikes can easily reach 300 to 400 %. In
order to not deprive poor people, public authorities now often
provide for ‘pre-paid meters’ or ‘social tariffs’. This is a
very stigmatizing, costly and unfair system that does not necessarily
help poor people. A better system could be to provide all citizens,
whether rich or poor, with the minimum quantity of certain goods,
necessary for a life in dignity. Consumption above this necessary
amount – of water, of electricity … - can indeed be invoiced. But
at least all will be sure to always have their basic needs respected.
social services is always a costly and stigmatizing matter. There is
a lot of evidence from all over the world to make this clear. But
apparently, many people have difficulties to believe that serving the
poor can best be done by serving all citizens.
The right to water
we apply this reasoning to water, it is clear that all attempts to
privatize this basic good for life have to be rejected. People,
animals and nature, they all need clean water in order to survive. It
is the perfect example of a ‘commons’ which only can be managed
collectively and has to benefit absolutely all. No one can be
Consensus policies however did lead to the privatization of water,
all over the world. And it is no coincidence that all of these
privatizations have failedWeizsäcker, E.U. von (ed.), Limits to Privatization. How to avoid too much of a good thing, London, Earthscan, 2005.. They also led to wide social protest of
which the ‘water war’ in Cochabamba, Bolivia is the best known.
for the European Union, its water directive considers water to be a
like any other’,
but still a commodity. In all texts of the European Commission water
is clearly treated as an economic good that needs a cost effective
management. The Commission recently proposed a ‘concession
directive’ that wants to promote public private partnerships in
order to boost competitiveness. Water services are once again
threatened. And in countries that need help in the current financial
crisis, the ‘troika’ (European Commission, European Central Bank
and IMF) imposes the privatization of water distribution.
Europe as well, social protest is growing. Two citizen’s
initiatives are gathering signatures in order to defend water as a
human right and as a public good. It is absolutely necessary that
citizens may fully participate in the water governance.
General Assembly of the United Nations, as well as the Human Rights
Council have adopted resolutions to declare water and sanitation a
human right. The Human Rights Council also stated that this right to
water derives from the ‘adequate standard of living’ which is
mentioned in the International Covenant for Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights. This means it is legally binding.
protection is an urgent need for societies, for people and for the
planet. There is no better example than water to show why this is so.
The different initiatives that have been taken recently by the World
Bank, the European Commission and the ILO are more than welcome. They
can be a good start for policies that break with neo-liberalism and
make way for states that guarantee rights, for economies that stop
the commodification of services and of nature, and for taking into
account the collective dimension of our societies.
this social protection is bound to go beyond poverty reduction, it
should be linked to these three points. Even better, it should be
embedded in a broader framework that can help to strengthen it.
Linking social protection to the initiative of the University of the
Common Good to ban poverty, on the one hand, and to the proposal of
the World Forum of Alternatives for a Declaration on the Common Good
of Humanity, on the other hand, can help to give social protection
programmes the boost they need.
society organisations can start to work with the proposals made by
international organisations. It is people at the local level who know
best their needs, and who will have to decide how far and how fast
they want to go. A broad social protection system can build on these
first proposals and slowly develop towards systemic change. Because
social protection has a huge transformative potential. It inevitably
leads to changes in the labour market, in the economy, in democracy…