What's next for Social Protection: A Global Fund for Social Protection

Social protection gaps left individuals and societies vulnerable to health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19. A Global Fund for Social Protection could accelerate progress in building social protection floors worldwide and strengthen crisis resilience decisively.

Social Protection has been an essential tool to face the pandemic and to mitigate its health, social and economic impact on individuals and societies. So far, 209 countries adopted 1,568 social protection measures in response to COVID-19 - 54 % of these measures were new emergency programs and 46% adjustments of pre-existing contributory and non-contributory social protection programs (ILO, 16/11/2020). Mozambique, for example, adapted its national cash transfer program to provide higher levels of benefits to its 600,000 beneficiaries, and extended transfers to one million additional individuals as a temporary emergency assistance.

Despite the impressive number and scale of responses, many programs have failed to protect all people in need, especially those formerly not integrated into the social protection system, as for instance workers in the informal sector (ILO, 2020a; CGAP, 2020). Overall, performance of the programmes varies strongly and points to the secret of success: "We have seen, once again, that countries that already had well-designed social protection systems in place were able to rapidly guarantee access to much needed health care and ensure income security through sickness benefits, unemployment benefits and social assistance" (Valérie Schmitt, 2020).

Large gaps in social protection floors

Among those left without income opportunities and without adequate social protection, hunger and extreme poverty are rising dramatically. It is expected that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause between 83 and 132 million more people to suffer from hunger this year (FAO et al., 2020).

Social protection gaps are not exclusively, but still strongly related to financial gaps. The International Labour Organization estimates that around US$77.9 billion would be required in 2020 alone, if social protection floors in all low-income countries were to be completed at once (ILO, 9/2020b).

While financing social protection is primarily the responsibility of national governments, it is evident that in some low-income countries international support is required until domestic fiscal capacity increases, and international tax justice improves. While the financing gap for low-income countries represents 15.9% of their GDP, related to the Global GDP it is only 0.25%.

Reaching the furthest behind first

Astonishingly, international funding for social protection is still extremely low, despite the vast scientific evidence on the effectiveness of investing in social protection to tackle extreme poverty. International aid only covers about 3% of the social protection sector financing gap in low-income countries (Manuel et al., 2020).

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the willingness of many countries to make unprecedented financial efforts to provide protection. A Global Fund for Social Protection could now strengthen these national initiatives, as well as up-scale well-functioning forms of international cooperation. It could contribute to transform current emergency programmes into coherent elements of sustainable social protection systems able to respond also to future crises. There is the need to act as a global community and push decisively towards the goal of universal social protection, starting from those left furthest behind.

Lessons from other Global Funds

The proposal to pool funds globally for high priority issues is far from new. Many times, it has been the instrument of choice to engage for common goals and coordinated progress in various specific sectors, as for example in Health (Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria), Education (Education cannot wait), and Climate (Green Climate Fund) as well as related to the cross-sectoral Agenda 2030 (Joint SDG Fund).

There are important lessons to learn from earlier experiences of Global Funds. Among them is the observation that Global Funds were able to mobilise political commitment on national and on international level. Global Funds came with a stronger focus on data, results and joint learning and have led to more effective collective donor effort (Manuel and Manuel, 2018). In the context of social protection, donor coordination is particularly important, as social protection systems need to be integrated and coherent: “Fragmented aid and associated advice embodies the risk that systems become or remain un-coordinated and fragmented” (Michael Cichon, 2020).

Earlier experiences of Global Funds also have caused strong criticism, mainly around their narrow, vertical focus of intervention, donor dominance and additional bureaucracy. Therefore, specific design features - mandate, governance structure and procedures - are extremely important.

Mandate of a Global Fund for Social Protection

In the proposal of the Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors the mandate of a Global Fund for Social Protection differs explicitly from a narrow focus of intervention. It is described as “supporting national governments in their efforts to build up and strengthen their universal and rights-based social protection systems, based on national dialogues with social partners and civil society” (GCSPF 2020). In essence the aim is to provide for:

  1. Technical support to introduce or complete social protection floors and to develop countries’ preparedness to sustain and expand social protection in times of crises.  
  1. Co-financing of social protection floor benefits, in cases where low-income countries would require a prohibitive high share of their current total tax revenue to do so.   
  1. Support during crises to strengthen responsiveness of social protection systems.  

A Global Fund for Social Protection is important, not only to mobilise additional international finance, but also to leverage domestic resources and to support policy and technical coherence for efficient and accountable building of national social protection systems: “Essential elements for sustainable system building are an inclusive national social dialogue, legislation to ensure social protection becomes a right, and reliable allocations in the national budget. The Mandate of a Global Fund for Social Protection is to play a catalytic role to strengthen these elements” (Gabriel Fernandez, 2020).

Governance features

Consequently, the governance structure of a Global Fund for Social Protection needs to put country ownership first, as agreed upon in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. “It is solely up to the recipient countries to decide on the concrete shape of their national social protection floors – even if they are temporarily co-financed by international donors. Therefore, the decision-making structures of the Fund must be designed in such a way that no decisions can be taken against the will of the recipient countries” (Markus Kaltenborn, 2020).

The second priority feature is to institutionalize participation of social partners and civil society. “Social Partners and civil society have an important role as part of the national social dialogue, in the design, implementation and monitoring of social protection, to sustain political will for long term allocation of public spending and to hold governments accountable. They consequently also have a role to play within the international governance structure of a Global Fund for Social Protection” (Sulistri Afrileston, 2020). 

Towards social protection floors worldwide

The international community of nations has long committed to ensure the human right of all people to social protection. In this Decade of Action to deliver on the 2030 Agenda, commitments must be translated into tangible results. “This is not only required by global solidarity, but there is also a legal obligation in this regard, derived from fundamental human rights (…).” (Kaltenborn, 2020).

To build solid protection floors, which we can rely on even in times of crisis, requires determined and courageous steps towards more national and international solidarity. “Present levels of inequality of standards of living and injustice are not sustainable in a globalizing world. In a world with global markets, global health crisis, global migration, global financial and economic crises and a looming climate disaster, the solidarity between people cannot stop at national borders. The Fund is only a tiny contribution, but perhaps a visible indication of that understanding” (Michael Cichon, 2020).

This blog post is published as part of the activities to promote and disseminate the results and key discussions of the global e-Conference ‘Turning the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity: What’s next for social protection?’, held in October 2020. The blog summarises the key messages from the e-Conference’s Side Event on A Global Fund for Social Protection. The session was moderated by Alison Tate, Director of Economic and Social Policy of International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and joined by speakers Valérie Schmitt, Deputy Director of International Labour Organization (ILO); Gabriel Fernandez, Social Protection Specialist of Africa Platform for Social Protection (APSP); Markus Kaltenborn, Professor of Law of Ruhr University Bochum; Sulistri Afrileston, Deputy President of the Confederation of Indonesia Prosperous Trade Union KSBSI, member of ITUC;  Michael Cichon, Professor emeritus of Social Protection of Maastricht Graduate School of Governance at the United Nations University in Maastricht (UNU MERIT); Marcus Manuel, Senior Research Associate of Overseas Development Institute (ODI). You can watch the full session here.


CGAP (2020). Relief for Informal Workers: Falling through the Cracks in COVID-19, Covid-19 Briefing, Accessible: Relief for Informal Workers: Falling through the Cracks in COVID-19 (cgap.org)

FAO et al. (2020). The Report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, Accessible:   SOFI2020_EN_web.pdf (reliefweb.int)

GCSPF (2020). Global Fund for Social protection. Concept note, Accessible: Global Financing Mechanism for Social Protection.doc

ILO (9/2020a). Extending social protection to informal workers in the COVID-19 crisis: country responses and policy considerations, Social Protection Spotlight, Accessible: https://www.social-protection.org/gimi/RessourcePDF.action?id=56833 

ILO (9/2020b). Financing gaps in social protection: Global estimates and strategies for developing countries in light of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, Social Protection Spotlight, Accessible: RessourcePDF.action (social-protection.org)

ILO (16/11/2020). Social Protection Monitor, International Labour Organization, Accessible: ILO | Social Protection Platform | (social-protection.org)

Kaltenborn, M. (2020). “Social Protection Floors as an investment in the future”, International Journal of Public Law and Policy (IJPLAP), vol. 7 (2020), forthcoming

Manuel, M. et al. (2020). Financing the reduction of extreme poverty post-Covid-19, ODI Briefing Note, Accessible: reducing_poverty_post_covid_final.pdf (odi.org)

Manuel, M. and Manuel, C. (2018). Achieving equal access to justice for all by 2030. Lessons from global funds, ODI working paper 537, Accessible: 12307.pdf (odi.org)

By Nicola Wiebe.

Source: socialprotection.org.

Social-protection programs are supposed to do just what the name implies: protect those segments of society that are most in need. Demanding that beneficiaries effectively renounce their rights to personal privacy and data protection, as many governments are doing, amounts to just the opposite.

In recent decades, social assistance programs around the world have been strengthened to the point that they now benefit more than 2.5 billion people, usually the poorest and most vulnerable. But rising pressure to apply biometric technology to verify beneficiaries’ identities, and to integrate information systems ranging from civil registries to law-enforcement databases, means that social programs could create new risks for those who depend on them.

Private companies, donor agencies, and the World Bank argue that the application of biometric tools like iris and fingerprint scanning or facial and voice recognition, together with the integration of databases, will boost efficiency, combat fraud, and cut costs. And many governments seem convinced.

While there is no systematic information available on the use of biometric technology in social-assistance schemes, a look at certain flagship programs suggests that it is already on the rise. In South Africa, 17.2 million beneficiaries of social grants receive biometric smart cards. In Mexico, the 55.6 million beneficiaries of Seguro Popular (public health insurance for the poorest citizens) must provide theirbiometric data to the authorities.

The world’s largest biometric database – Aadhaar – is in India. Because inclusion in Aadhaar is a prerequisite for access to several social programs, 95% of the country’s 1.25 billion inhabitants are already recorded. The provision of biometric data is also required to receive benefits in Botswana, Gabon, Kenya, Namibia, Pakistan, Paraguay, and Peru.

Biometric data stored in one social-protection program database can easily be linked to other systems using a common identifier, even those unrelated to social protection, such as for law enforcement or commercial marketing. In most European countries, however, such database integration is prohibited, owing to the threat it poses to privacy and data protection. After all, social-assistance programs require the processing of significant amounts of data, including sensitive information like household assets, health status, and disabilities.

In many of the developing countries that are expanding their social-protection and biometric-identification programs, the frameworks for protecting personal data are underdeveloped. Yet donors and government authorities often advocate the widest possible integration of databases, among public and private entities alike. For example, Nigeria, which aims to issue 100 million biometric e-ID cards, has a National Identity Database connected to various other databases, including those maintained by law enforcement agencies.

Pressure to share sensitive social-protection data, including biometric identifiers, with law enforcement – domestically, as well as internationally – is compounded by concerns about terrorism and migration. This pressure threatens not only basic privacy, but also civil liberties. Add the risk of negligent data disclosure or unauthorized third-party access – including by cybercriminals and hackers – and social-protection beneficiaries could also be exposed to stigmatization, extortion, or blackmail.

Then there is the possibility that access to sensitive social-protection data, including biometric information, will be given or sold to private companies. Social-protection authorities and private companies, such as MasterCard or Visa, frequently enter into commercial agreements to create smart cards for social-assistance programs or to arrange for businesses to accept those cards. For example, South Africa’s social-assistance biometric card is a MasterCard.

Worse still, such agreements – which often are not publicly disclosed – tend not to include mechanisms for redress in cases of abuse and misuse of information. Yet recent media reports suggest that these risks are considerable. For example, in Chile, millions of patients’ medical records – including those of HIV patients and women who had been sexually abused – were publicly exposed for almost a year.

Moreover, in South Africa, private companies used the information of millions of social-protection beneficiaries to increase corporate profits to the detriment of beneficiary interests. In India, a newspaper claimed that its reporters had gained unrestricted access to the Aadhaar database. Another report documented how Aadhaar numbers, with sensitive financial information, had been made publicly available on government websites.

The threat to social-protection beneficiaries is not eliminated even when data are accessible only to government. As the political scientist Virginia Eubanks recounts, in the United States, automated decision-making in social-welfare provision enables the government to “profile, police, and punish poor people.”

As technology continues to advance, these threats will only grow. For example, facial-recognition technology may enable governments to identify protesters who receive social assistance using the digital photographs they have provided in exchange for access to benefits. Malta, for example, is already considering using CCTV cameras with facial-recognition software to prevent “antisocial behavior.”

The lack of regard for privacy and data protection in social-assistance programs should not come as a surprise. These programs serve the most vulnerable groups – people who are already at a disadvantage in defending their rights. Entrenched stigma and anti-poor prejudices often prevent other, more privileged members of society from recognizing those risks, much less advocating on behalf of social-protection recipients. Many seem to believe that if you are receiving “free” benefits, you cannot also demand privacy.

Social-protection programs are supposed to do just what the name implies: protect those segments of society that are most in need. Demanding that these people effectively renounce their rights to personal privacy and data protection amounts to just the opposite.

That alone should be enough reason to lobby for the adoption of adequate legal frameworks, well-resourced data protection authorities, and, as a last line of defense, an independent judiciary and media. But if people need a stronger incentive, there is always self-interest, because the risks faced by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged today may well become reality for a much broader cross-section of society tomorrow.

By Magdalena Sepúlveda. Magdalena Sepúlveda is a senior research associate at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and a member of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (ICRICT). Previously, she was the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Magdalena Sepúlveda is member of the Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors (GCSPF).

More information: Is biometric technology in social protection programmes illegal or arbitrary? An analysis of privacy and data protection, Working Paper - ESS 59, 5 June 2018, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona; Extension of Social Security; International Labour Office, Geneva. Download the pdf version here.

Source: Project Syndicate.

Civil Society Call for a Global Fund for Social Protection

Over 200 civil society organizations and trade unions unite to call for a Global Fund for Social Protection to protect the most vulnerable during COVID-19 and beyond.

Read the Call

SP&PFM Programme

The programme Improving Synergies Between Social Protection and Public Finance Management provides medium-term support to multiple countries aiming to strengthen their social protection systems at a national level and ensure sustainable financing. The programme aims to support countries in their efforts towards achieving universal social protection coverage.

This initiative is implemented jointly by the ILO, Unicef, and the GCSPF.

Read more

Subscribe to our newsletter: 

 © 2023 Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram