Can we overestimate the importance of ILO Recommendation 202?

The ILO Social Protection Department invited the Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors to contribute to a blog on the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102) and the 10th anniversary of the Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202) to accelerate progress towards Universal Social Protection. The blog is available here.

From a historical perspective, it’s difficult to overestimate the impact of ILO Recommendation 202.

After the second World War, during several “development decades”, the international community and the United Nations sought to address the challenge of development from a broad perspective, beyond peoples’ material needs or economic growth. This is well-illustrated by this phrase from the Secretary-General's report on Proposals for Action at the start of the first Development Decade in 1960:

“… We are learning that development concerns not only man and woman's material needs, but also the improvement of the social conditions of their life and their broad human aspirations. Development is not just economic growth, it is growth plus change."

During these decades, social policy, including the provision of public services like health care and education, was at the centre of development discourse and action. Development was also seen as a collective responsibility that required changes in policy, with strong public services and institutions. No surprise that in those years the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) tripartite constituents negotiated and adopted the Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102) which provides benchmarks to ensure adequate levels of coverage and benefits throughout people’s lives. This international labour standard remains to date, 70 years later, the reference for countries worldwide when they develop their social security system.

Unfortunately, after three “development decades” the paradigm shifted away from broadly defined social development towards a much narrower focus on “reducing extreme poverty”. Poverty was no longer considered the effect of factors underpinning the organization of our economies and societies that demanded comprehensive changes at all levels, but as an individual problem and responsibility that can be addressed through targeted interventions. Structural adjustment programs pushed countries towards austerity and the privatisation of public services, leading to increasing poverty. The ambitions were also reduced, as demonstrated by Millennium Development Goal 1: the international community only targeted a 50 per cent reduction of extreme poverty between 2000 and 2015.

“The year is 1990 A.D. Development is entirely occupied by the Bretton Woods Empire. Well not entirely! One small village of indomitable Genevans still holds out.”

During these challenging decades, if social protection was discussed, it was mainly regarded as an obstacle for growth that needed to be scaled-back. Only a few development actors and organizations, like the International Labour Organization (ILO), believed in and championed the importance of social protection for all. Even though it has been recognised as a human right since 1948 in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and in several other international standards. There was a general believe that social protection was a luxury that only high-income countries could afford, impossible to achieve in low- and middle-income countries.

Recommendation 202 brought social protection from Geneva to New York

Even though several important events and decisions at the ILO preceded the adoption of the Social Protection Floors Recommendation, No. 202 by the International Labour Conference in 2012, it is difficult to overestimate its importance. This new international labour standard, complementary to Convention 102 (as a foundation on which to build a house), brought the issue of social protection firmly back on the agenda and in the discourse of the broader development community.

First there is the chosen language. Talking about a “floor” helped to change the impression of some “unachievable” set of expensive policy measures for low- and middle-income countries. The formulation of basic guarantees, notably health protection for all and income guarantee over the life cycle, made it concrete what the international community should aim for a first step on the road towards universal social protection.

Second, there was the timing. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial and economic crisis, the understanding had grown that at least a basic form of social protection was necessary to prevent the devastating effects of that crisis on large segments of the world population, which remained unprotected for any kind of risk or shock, as for example the workers in the informal economy, the migrant workers, people with disabilities, women and young people, and other vulnerable groups. The ILO, building on their decades long expertise could capitalise on the moment. Using the momentum to unite people around a new standard.

Is it safe to say that Recommendation 202 brought social protection from Geneva to New York? That it brought social protection from the ILO to the heart of the United Nations headquarters? Would there be a Social Protection Interagency Cooperation Board (SPIAC-B) bringing together key agencies, governments, unions and civil society organizations (CSOs) without the process leading to the adoption of Recommendation 202? Could we imagine social protection to be central to at least five of the Sustainable Development Goals, without the adoption of Recommendation 202 and the wide support it received? Would there be a Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection (USP2030) without Recommendation 202? And well yes, if we may say so: would there be a Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors (GCSPF)? This truly global coalition, consisting of over 100 civil society organizations and trade unions from all corners of the world, has been – and continues to be – promoting the full implementation of Recommendation 202 ever since its adoption.

At the regional level social protection is also gaining track. Recommendation 202 has proven to be an important inspiration for countries and regions. At the beginning of 2022 the African Union adopted a ratifiable Protocol on the Right of Citizens to Social Protection and Social Security. There is also an ASEAN declaration on strengthening social protection and a framework and action plan to implement it.

Even if definitions and strategies still differ amongst international organizations, there is definitely a growing consensus about the right of every person in the world to adequate social protection throughout the life cycle.

And from the floor up, we build a house of universal social protection

For the Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors, the basic guarantees are the starting point, the steppingstone for rights-based, adequate, comprehensive and sustainable universal social protection, as outlined in Recommendation 202.

There may have been initial fears that floors could be turned into ceilings and that agreement on “minimum social protection guarantees” could be considered as “maximum responsibilities” for governments and social actors concerned. However, the ILO confirms time and again its two-dimensional strategy to extend social protection enshrined in Recommendation 202, which aims at the (speedy) implementation of national social protection floors (horizontal dimension) and the progressive achievement of higher levels of protection (vertical dimension). Hence it is worth noting that since the adoption of Recommendation 202, there is a small but significant increase in ratifications of Convention 102.

Rather than trying to formulate a blueprint, the recommendation seeks to forge unity in action for all actors involved, both at the national and the international level, by listing 18 key principles to show the way forward. These principles, which include the universality of protection, non-discrimination, solidarity in financing, transparency and accountability, remain as relevant as ever. In fact, as international financing institutions (IFIs) renew their push to replace collective social insurance with individual savings accounts, it is worth reminding ourselves that these principles are fundamental for social protection systems that are inclusive, effective and fair.

Even if the State holds the overall and primary responsibility, it is important that the recommendation highlights the role of other actors in society. It won’t be a surprise that for the GCSPF the explicit reference to the role of social dialogue and broader participation of relevant and representative organizations of persons concerned is crucial. This is even more relevant in these times when civic space is dramatically shrinking in too many countries.

Civil society organizations and trade unions develop specific social protection services, demonstrating that it is possible to reach otherwise excluded groups. These experiences can serve as good practice and should be taken into account and become part of comprehensive public social protection systems. Civil society organizations and trade unions also raise awareness and empower people to demand the extension and transformation of social protection systems. Finally, involving civil society and trade unions structurally and effectively in the effort of realizing universal social protection is a matter of democratic and inclusive governance, generating broad-based support and strengthening the social contract.

All in all, the Recommendation provides important political levers to convince policy makers to invest more and better in social protection. As shown in the World Social Protection Report 2020-22, there is still a long way to go, as more than half the worlds’ population does not benefit from any social protection guarantee. Thanks to Recommendation 202 and the broad national and international support for it some progress has been made, at least at the level of discourse and in the establishment of several international initiatives.

However, now comes probably the biggest challenge: providing sufficient means to implement the measures needed to guarantee adequate, comprehensive and sustainable social protection for all. We, as the GCSPF, argue for the establishment of a new global financing mechanism for social protection. We are still convinced that such mechanism is necessary to increase international support for social protection, to strengthen policy coherence between national governments and international organizations and to guarantee predictable, longer-term support for the countries concerned. The UN-supported “Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for Just Transitions” could be part of the answer to our call. However, our concern is that within this broad, ambitious and very complex initiative, there might not be sufficient means and attention provided to effectively support the expansion of national social protection systems. One way of dealing with this concern is by safeguarding a substantial proportion of the resources of the accelerator for social protection or through the establishment of a global fund for social protection as a complement to it. It is equally important that social partners and civil society are effectively involved in its governance and that the guiding principles in Recommendation 202 guide the Global Accelerator.

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, during which governments have spent large amounts of resources on (most often temporary and ad hoc) social protection measures, we have another historic chance to strengthen our social contract by putting universal social protection at the very centre of it. Globally, the world has never been richer so it seems the financial resources should not be the real challenge, but are we able to put them where they matter most?

A toast to the 70th and the 10th anniversary of Convention 102 and Recommendation 202 respectively!

1960-1970: First United Nations Development Decade: A/RES/1710 (XVI), 1960. We have rendered the original language more gender-sensitive.

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"Asterix the Gaul" is a bande dessinée comic book series about a village of indomitable Gaulish warriors who adventure around the world and fight the Roman Republic

In particular the definition of the Decent Work Agenda, in which social protection is one of four pillars and the 2008 ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization and the subsequent recurrent discussions on the strategic objective of social protection (social security).

In section 3 the Recommendation focuses on national strategies to extend social security.

Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors, 9 December 2022.

Civil Society Call for a Global Fund for Social Protection

Civil society organizations and trade unions unite to call for a Global Fund for Social Protection to protect the most vulnerable.

Social Security for All

Civil society organizations and trade unions call governments and international financial institutions to make a commitment to create social security systems that enable everyone to realize their rights. Governments and financial institutions should end policies that have been failing millions of people.

SP&PFM Programme

The programme Improving Synergies Between Social Protection and Public Finance Management provided medium-term support to multiple countries aiming to strengthen their social protection systems at a national level and ensure sustainable financing. The programme aimed to support countries in their efforts towards achieving universal social protection coverage.
This initiative was implemented jointly by the ILO, Unicef, and the GCSPF.

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