Social Protection, the "commons" and the human rights. An introduction

On why we need to re-think the protection of societies, people and the planet
Francine Mestrum, Global Social Justice, Belgium
Published: 8 years, 4 months ago (04/04/2013)
Updated: 7 years, 3 months ago (04/10/2014)

Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences and works on social development, poverty and globalisation. She coordinates the global network of Global Social Justice.

Social 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

As 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,

There 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.

The 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.

Nevertheless, 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 [1908].. 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 satisfied.

The objective of social protection

The 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..

Next 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.

While 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.

In 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.

This exercise is rather deceiving.

While 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:

Social 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..

Social 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..

Social 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..

As 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 reformswhich are thus made politically feasibleWorld Bank, op. cit., p. X..

In 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 neo-liberalism.

As 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 personsILO, 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 security.

This is where the question of coverage comes in and where we have to ask whether the new proposals can go beyond poverty reduction.

The 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 allWorld Bank, op. cit., p. XII and 1..

All 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

Today’s 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 immoral levels.

If 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.

If 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.

A 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.

Another 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 ‘common’.

A 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 public services.

Only 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’

Defending ‘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 distribution.

But 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.

This 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.

By 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.

Universalism 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.

A 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.

A 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 of society.

This ‘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.

Later, 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.

Targeting 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

If 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 excluded.

Washington 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.

As for the European Union, its water directive considers water to be a commodity ‘not 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.

In 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.

The 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.


Social 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.

If 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.

Civil 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…