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Audio Guide: The Next Page - Transcripts

Welcome to the UN Library and Archives Geneva's Audio Research Guide! Here you'll find episodes from our own podcast, The Next Page, as well as podcasts and audio from or on the UN system and multilateralism.

It Takes A Global Crisis - Episode 3: Social Protection

by Natalie Alexander on 2022-03-02T15:26:14+01:00 | Comments

Tiffany Verga 

Hello and welcome to The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Library and Archives Geneva dedicated to conversations on multilateralism. This is, ‘It Takes a Global Crisis’, a series of four special episodes in collaboration with the SDG Lab at UN Geneva. 

Edward Mishaud 

Hi, I'm Edward Mishaud from the SDG Lab. 

Tiffany Verga 

And we're Tiffany Verga, 

Natalie Alexander 

And Natalie Alexander from the Library and Archives. 

Edward Mishaud 

Together, we'll explore how the COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways set in motion sustainable development solutions, things that were often talked about but rarely implemented before the crisis. We'll also consider the challenges, the gaps, and the limitations of progress that the pandemic has highlighted. 

Natalie Alexander 

We'll be talking to a range of experts and practitioners as they work both on the ground and in advancing policy on their experiences across the themes of digitalization and connectivity. The environment as a key to resilience, sustainable cities and social protection. 

Tiffany Verga 

At the end of each episode will also share with you a spark, an idea from a real-life project relevant to the episodes theme that is sparking change to advance the SDG's. So did it take a global crisis? Let's find out. 

Edward Mishaud
Hi everyone, I'm Edward Mishaud, and welcome to the third episode in our special podcast mini-series between the SDG Lab where I work and the UN Library and Archives Geneva.  

We’re releasing an episode each month, and if you’re joining us for the first time, you can explore our previous episodes, where we introduce the series, and explore digitalization and connectivity, as well as the environment and social resilience. Today, our guests continue the discussion on how the global pandemic has shaped our understanding of sustainable development and the SDGs through the lens of social protection.   

Christina Behrendt 
I think if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is really the realization how much social protection systems are important for countries, and not only in times of crisis, but really also for people's everyday lives.  

Edward Mishaud  

That’s Christina Behrendt, Head of the Social Policy Unit in the Social Protection Department at the International Labour Organization in Geneva.  

Kate Philip 

It's been really an opportunity to rise to the challenge in relation to many different key areas in terms of addressing the problems in our society.   

Edward Mishaud 
And that’s Dr. Kate Philip, Programme Lead for the Presidential Employment Stimulus. She’s connecting from South Africa.   

The COVID-19 pandemic has put social protection in the spotlight, inviting us to reflect on what we’ve learned during the crisis, and how we can better prepare strong social protection policies for future events. 

Our guests today are going to bring some insights into this topic. So let’s get started.   

Christina Behrendt, can you start us off by providing an easy to grasp or understand definition of social protection? And what does it really mean in practice? 

Christina Behrendt 

Yeah, thank you very much Edward. That's actually quite a difficult question, because social protection has kind of many different meanings in different countries. But when we talk about social protection, we talk about social protection systems, and this is basically the set of measures that countries have at their disposal to provide income security for people and to provide access to health care. This normally includes different types of schemes and programs that include social insurance programs or schemes, social assistance, universal benefits, for example, such as universal child benefits or universal pensions, which are available in some countries. So it's really the broad range of measures that support and protect people really from child to basically through the working age, including unemployment benefits, for example, or sickness benefits, and obviously, health protection is an important part of it until old age pensions. And I think another element which it's important to add there is also a combination of cash benefits in many cases, but also looking at access to public services. 

Edward Mishaud 

Thank you, Christina. That's really an important point and I like how you unpacked social protection for us. It's not just one element, but it's quite varied. And this issue is very much at the center of the work of the International Labour Organization, the ILO, promoting social justice and related policies, as well as the assistance that is given to countries so that not all members of society have adequate levels and access to social protection. And we're thinking now, of course, this issue in the context of COVID. Christina, what are some of the changes that you've been seeing in social protection systems, policies or programs since the onset of COVID-19? 

Christina Behrendt 

Thank you very much for that question, Edward. I think we have seen two things in particular, the first thing is that social protection has really played a key role in country's policy responses to the crisis. I think it was really a key part of the measures that countries have taken to protect people's health, to protect people's jobs and to protect people's incomes. It has really put social protection very much in the spotlight and has highlighted the importance of social protection.  

And it has also highlighted quite a lot of the preexisting social protection gaps. So especially for workers in the informal economy, but also other groups, we have seen really the devastating consequences of not having access to protection. And fortunately, almost all countries in the world have actually used social protection measures in their crisis responses. At the ILO, we have monitored crisis responses and we have counted more than 1700 social protection measures taken in response to the crisis in almost all countries of the of the world. It's a broad range of different measures. It includes job retention schemes, unemployment protection, income support, health protection, sickness benefits, child benefits, better access to child care, for example, so it's a very broad range of measures that countries have taken.  

I think one of the key lessons that we have seen in those crisis responses is that countries who already had quite good and robust social protection systems, they could react much better to the crisis, much faster, and at much more scale. So they could really on the one hand, use the existing systems and have the kind of those systems mobilized in a way the automatic responses to inbuilt responses, but also improved the way how they operated in quite a quick way. But on the other hand, countries with weaker social protection systems, they face much bigger difficulties in extending that support to the population, not only because of financing challenges, but also because of a lack of the administrative infrastructure. So I mean, a lack of database is a lack of payment mechanisms, simply a lack of knowing how to reach people. This is especially clear for workers in the informal economy. That was one example where we have really seen those difficulties. But even in those countries, quite a lot of measures have been adopted. So I think if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is really the realization how much social protection systems are important for countries, and not only in times of crisis, but really also for people's everyday lives.  

But at the same time, a lot of these measures have been temporary so a lot of those measures have already ended or are about to end. That really leaves countries at a very important crossroads. The question is now at this point on having realized how important social protection is, whether countries really use that policy window now for making the right choices with regard to the future of their social protection systems. I mean, are they going to reinforce their social protection systems and making sure that they are better prepared for the next crisis? And not only for those crises, but really providing the day-to-day support of the population? Or are they going to fall back into kind of a low road approach of minimalist social protection policies, and fiscal consolidation, and especially given the fact that in many countries, there are now huge fiscal pressures, especially after the crisis? I think this is really also a question of how to mobilize international support to support those countries with insufficient capacities to really allow them to make the necessary investment into their social protection systems. 

Edward Mishaud 

Thank you, Christine, I'm going to bring Kate in now. Kate Philip, you're joining us from South Africa. I think it's a good way to segue to your work and what you're doing in South Africa. So can you share with our listeners, how your country has used social protection measures to tackle the social and economic inequalities that have been brought out by the pandemic? And importantly, who are you trying to reach? Or who have you been reaching? Christina did mention briefly about the informal economy and informal workers. So I think it would be interesting if you can also just bring in that perspective as well. 

Kate Philip 

Absolutely, thank you. As Christina has made clear the impacts of the crisis are multifaceted, and so we've had to have a multifaceted response. On the one hand, we've seen increased unemployment, and with that goes, increased poverty and hunger. We had an existing high level of unemployment even before the pandemic. But we've also seen things like disrupted supply lines. We've seen disruptions in food systems and actually, what that highlighted is just how critical many of our communities, how dependent many of our communities are on the informal sector for food supply. So really, it was challenging on many fronts, and the response has been on many fronts. In fact, it's been really an opportunity to rise to the challenge in relation to many different key areas in terms of addressing the problems in our society.  

I think at a formal level what was the easy part is that a scheme called Temporary Employee / Employer Relief Scheme was rolled out, which reached over 5 million workers who received a payment in a context in which their normal wages and salaries might have been disrupted. The big challenge was the informal sector because of course, they are hard to see they are not registered. We don't have a database of them. Administrative systems don't recognize them, we don't have the kinds of systems in place that could readily and quickly provide support to the informal sector. So that was, in fact, the initial challenge, which came onto our desk was to say, how do we provide support to the informal sector. What also became clear as we looked at it was how many households with unemployed people had informal income as their main source of income. So really, it was a double whammy, people who are really unemployed are going to take a double kick in the sense and face deepened poverty and food hunger and food hunger started to escalate very quickly. And that was the context in which there was a proposal to introduce what was initially called a special COVID Grant. It's become known as the social relief of distress. That grant is targeted at the poorest in the society, and really, the critical question was not so much a policy question. Everybody was clear, we knew we needed to provide the support. But the critical question was how to do it. In the context of the pandemic, when public offices were closed, when no means testing could take place, how would we target this grant? How would people apply? And we pull together a crack team of financial and payment experts. And really the critical issue was, could we roll out a grant to some 8 million people in the timeframes, in an equitable way with fair systems that was efficient and effective under the conditions of the pandemic? A lot of innovation happened in that space, because that is exactly what we did. We rolled that grant out relatively quickly. It was able to reach millions of people and we did it using digital systems in a way that had not been done before.  

So firstly, the application process was on mobile phones, the vetting process, we managed to join up administrative data for the very first time in order to target and also to vet applicants, so that applicants who provided the ID number were vetted against the Population Register to make sure that they were alive and weren't children and were qualified for the grant. But we also then ran that data against the Unemployment Insurance Fund, against our other social grants, against the tech system in order to get what was called a net file of eligible beneficiaries. And that was all done using joined-up administrative systems. The payments also were digital. So all of this was, in a sense, technical innovation in support of an urgent social need. 

Edward Mishaud 

And Kate, what has that meant then for people who have been recipients of the program that has been made available? What has that meant for them in terms of their day-to-day life during COVID? 

Kate Philip 

So the quantum of the grant is unfortunately small, but the data shows that it has made a measurable difference in terms of food, poverty, and hunger. And really, that was the most immediate crisis. But I think that was just one part of the response. It was a critical part. But what I would want to add are some of the economic measures, in particular the use of unemployment stimulus to create public employment and provide livelihood support in new ways and at a new level of scale. 12 different departments put up their hands to participate. We're also working with a non-state sector to create new forms of work that serve the public good, and to create jobs in that way over this period. So that's also a complimentary part of a package that includes other elements as well, but I'll stop there. 

Edward Mishaud 

Thank you, Kate. Christina Behrendt, I just wanted you to respond to what Kate has shared, because that's very much what the perspective from South Africa. ILO, you have that global perspective. What are you observing in other countries and regions around these measures? So that what you've been calling for, what the ILO has been calling for decades, that these measures are actually sustainable ones and not one offs. And you referenced that earlier when you started off that that's also a major concern how some countries that did have robust social protection systems in place were able to fare better, and then those that didn't. If you could just respond to what Kate shared and then just to give a bit of context to what you're seeing and learning from other countries around the world. 

Christina Behrendt 

Yeah, thank you very much. I think what Kate just shared is really fascinating because it really highlights so many aspects of a really good and comprehensive crisis response. I mean one element which I think is really key is thinking employment and social protection policies together, because what we see quite often is that they are kind of be treated as something very different and far away from each other but I think what really made the policy response in South Africa special was the fact that employment and social protection were very much so much kind of thought as one and also that the policy responses were really integrated. I think this was particularly important in a crisis that really affected both employment but also people's lives in terms of access to food and nutrition, and a lot of other elements together. 

Another element was really that behind it is really about the administrative capacities of bringing different parts of government together and having innovations, also using kind of digital technologies in a good way. I think this is also what we saw in some other countries. Maybe just mentioning a few examples from other countries. For example, in Togo, Togo implemented a cash transfer, also on a kind of mobile basis. It went also by a phone app, really to support workers in the informal economy, reaching over half a million workers within a month, but for the time being that was a three-month program. And the question is what is going to continue after that. The government reached out to workers in the informal economy, which was not the case previously. I mean, how can that be used in the future also to provide better protection to them? Which is also with regard to improving working conditions, and maybe also supporting in the longer run, a transition from the informal economy to the formal economy, which is certainly in many contexts, not something that can happen from one day to the other. But I think it's important also to have that perspective as a kind of a longer-term perspective, at least.  

I think, also, looking at access to health care is important. We've seen that in many countries, measures have been taken to guarantee access to health care, also including people who might not have had access to health care previously. I think in some countries, also I am including migrant, for example, I mean, also migrants in an irregular situation, who might have been excluded, but I think one of the lessons from the crisis was also that it is really important to make sure that everyone has access, because I think this has become very clear that the use of social protection is really important, and we can only stop when really everyone has adequate protection. Maybe just adding one more point. I think that is also a lesson that we have seen in many countries, especially countries that have put in place a job retention schemes, or sometimes it's called partial unemployment benefits, sometimes it's called furlough benefits. That comes in different forms. But that did not only support workers who had reduced working time before because of the crisis, or sometimes even could not work at all, during a certain period of time.  

I think what has become very, very visible also with those measures is that on the one hand, they provide support to workers, but on the other hand, also, they provide support to enterprises. And I think this complementarity is also a key point, because quite often, social protection is seen as something which is more a cost for enterprises rather than a benefit. I think that's maybe one of the other big lessons that many people have drawn from the crisis, the realization that good and solid social protection systems are also a big part of a good policy environment for enterprises where they can operate. So I think, really the complementarity and the importance of social protection, both for the social development, but also for the economic development is really another of those key lessons that now we have drawn from the crisis. 

Edward Mishaud 

I think this kind of integrated approach like you've been citing of how it also has a health element, there's the economic element, there's also the social aspect that social protection systems bring forward through effective programs.  

Kate, I want to come back to you because I think COVID-19 hasn't been South Africa's first health crisis. I'm referencing HIV here. So how has the decades long combat against HIV shaped South Africa's response? And it's in a way, it's the same kind of triple crisis - it's a social crisis, it's a health crisis, and it's an economic crisis. That's something that we've seen with HIV in many countries around the world. Now we have COVID.  

Also, Christina talked about that earlier, and I'll go back to that point about how countries that had experiences, that had emergency programs in place did much better, and South Africa, with your HIV experience in responding, where has that brought you today in coping with COVID over the last two years? 

Kate Philip 

That is such an interesting question, because actually, there really has been a link in terms of the response. A critical part of that has been that in the period when the HIV crisis was particularly strong, there was the introduction of community health workers. Interestingly, those community health workers were actually supported using a public employment modality. And it goes back to what Christina was saying about the importance of thinking in integrated ways about these issues and the interface between the social protection policies and unemployment support of different kinds. So those community health workers were an absolutely key part of South Africa's arsenal against the pandemic, if you'd like. The lessons and the community resilience built around those kinds of forms of support have been a really important part of the response. I think what's also interesting here is, Christina also mentioned issues of early childhood development and care. These are often areas that are part of the informal economy.  

And this is another example where in South Africa. We included work in the care sector and in early childhood development as part of a public employment strategy. That actually meant that mainly women, often unpaid in that sector or working informally, for the very first time had rights at work, contracts, and a degree of income security through a public employment modality, which also gave that work social recognition, and has allowed a pathway since then, into increasing formalization and integration of those forms of work. So again, what we're seeing is how all these different dimensions speak to each other, and how important integrated approaches are. 

Edward Mishaud 

Christina at the International Labour Organization, so are you optimistic that other countries will follow the example of South Africa? You also cited Togo way at the beginning. You mentioned that there have been some over 1700 different types of measures that countries have used over the past two years that you and your team and the ILO have recorded. So how positive are you that we're going to see some long term social protection systems, measures and policies in place that will ultimately help lift people out of poverty, that will ultimately help bring people from the informal to the formal economy, and also contribute to all the other sustainable development goals, and we've heard that. Kate talked about education. We've heard about health. So what are you thinking? What makes you feel optimistic about this situation going forward? 

Christina Behrendt 

Thanks a lot for that important question. I think I am an optimist, so I mean I have been referring to this crossroads that countries are in at the moment, where they really, I think, having realized the importance of social protection, and also of an integrated approach to employment and social protection, as Kate highlighted. And I think there is in many and many quarters, I mean, in countries but also in international organizations, and in the UN, I think there is really the realization that social protection is really a key part of the response, if we want to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, because it contributes to the social, to the economic, but also to the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals. I think there is a growing support really to follow that high road approach of those kinds of investments in social protection systems that are on the one hand, universal, in the sense that they really provide protection to everyone, throughout people's life courses, but also provide really adequate protection, not just at the minimum level with protection which is comprehensive.  

But on the other side, also, and I think we also need to think about the financing, and the economic dimension and the political dimension, so really thinking about social protection systems that are sustainable, both financially but also socially sustainable. I see a much bigger support around the world, and I think that has been reflected, for example, in a document that was adopted at the last international labor conference back in June last year, which provides a very strong commitment to such a high road approach towards universal social protection. As you know, in the ILO it is obviously the governments that are represented in the ILO, but we also have workers and employers around the table. I think it's important also to have that broader tripartite approach to that. I think also, I mean, at the UN level, we see a very strong support, also from the UN Secretary General, in the common agenda that he put forward last year. I think there is quite a lot of political support, but I think at the same time, we have to be conscious about the situation that many countries are in, which make them even more vulnerable with kind of high and growing debts, in some cases, really rapidly growing inflation, higher poverty levels, challenges when it comes to their economies. I think what is needed now is a very strong support also for those countries that have difficulties of stemming those challenges alone. I think this is really a call on the UN certainly, and there has been a call recently, when the UN Secretary General has put forward a global accelerator for jobs and social protection, which exactly has this integrated approach around employment and social protection with very, very strong support.  

But I think we also need the support, also of the broader community, I mean, also thinking about the international financial institutions. I think they have come round also with a new position paper which was published already before the crisis in 2019, thinking about how to protect and how to promote public expenditure in health, education and social protection. And I think that support of the International Monetary Fund and all other international financial institutions would be extremely critical in that respect, but also governments from richer countries, because I think one of the other lessons we learned from the global crisis is that this is really a global challenge. Especially when it comes to tackling the pandemic, I think we need to have this global picture in mind. And we see that with the vaccinations. I think unless there is a greater rollout of those measures, we're not going to really reach those objectives. And I think so what is needed is really kind of a common approach, and a common support of that important objectives in order really to get to a situation where all people have access to adequate social protection. 

Edward Mishaud 

And Kate, what makes you optimistic based on your experience in South Africa, and maybe what you've also been seeing in other countries to ensure that the lessons and the initiatives, the programs, and the impact continues to go forward in social protection? 

Kate Philip 

Well, I think there is a number of different dimensions. I think the social relief of distress grant that I mentioned, really fooled a social protection gap that has been a serious problem in South Africa for a long time, which is that unemployed people who have not contributed to a contributory scheme don't receive any form of unemployment insurance in South Africa. And given our levels of unemployment, which has been over 25% for 25 years, that has been a real contributor to levels of poverty and inequality. That gap was closed for the first time by this grant. And the social benefits of that are becoming very apparent. So the grant has been renewed several times, and there is a very active debate in the society about whether it should be sustained and institutionalized. So I think this crisis has really put the spotlight on some of our pre-existing challenges and social protection gaps.  

I think the other thing that makes me optimistic is that there's just so much innovation happening in this context of the crisis. So in the context of the employment stimulus, we are finding new ways to create forms of work that contribute to the common good, and doing so in ways that partner with other actors. So for example, our social employment strategy is actually a strategy to deliver public employment but through civil society organizations, who have come forward with a wide range of proposals that include support to ending gender0based violence. It includes early childhood development, there is urban agriculture, there is placemaking. There's just a whole lot of innovation happening. And we're finding mechanisms to support that agency in the wider society, and to unlock community involvement and participation, and creating forms of work that actually, in their own way, contributes to an idea of social protection that - if I can put it this way - 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. So yes, I think there's a lot of source for optimism that comes out of the crisis. 

Edward Mishaud 

I like Kate how you said that, you know, putting the social back in to social protection. And I think what inspires me, from what you've shared and also Christina, is that this issue, social protection is one that looks at the whole spectrum of society. It also looks at the whole spectrum of economies. Christina even mentioned there where we need to also have more discussion, engagement on the environment side, also financing, and then, of course, the important element of political support. We could definitely take each of these issues and have another podcast on them, but I really want us to now, we're going to close up and in the spirit of this podcast, and what we've been asking our guests to wrap up is to end this sentence "It took a global crisis to..." So Christina, over to you? 

Christina Behrendt 

Yes, thanks a lot. I think my answer would be "it took a global crisis for people to realize the really essential importance of social protection as a means of solidarity and strengthening this solidarity element in the various areas of policies." So that's just as a short answer to a difficult question. 

Edward Mishaud 

And Kate? 

Kate Philip 

I think from everything I've said, you know exactly what I'm going to say. I would say that it took a global crisis to push us to innovate in delivering social support at new levels, including forms of work that serve the common good, and to take these to new levels of scale and with new levels of impact. 

Edward Mishaud 

Well, thanks to you both. I'm extremely optimistic regarding this issue and all of the related issues to social protection. And I think the fact that we've highlighted how it contributes to the broader Sustainable Development Goal agenda is something that I hope also our listeners will take away because that's ultimately what we're trying to showcase through this podcast series. So thank you, again, Christina Behrendt of the International Labor Organization, and Kate Phillip, with the presidential employment stimulus in South Africa, for sharing your time, your expertise, and also your insight into this very important issue. So thank you again, and take care. 

Kate Philip 

Thank you. 

Tiffany Verga 

Welcome to this episode’s ‘Spark’! This is a segment of our SDG lab series, where at the end of each episode, we’ll explore inspirational stories related to the conversation to spark further understanding and curiosity. 
 
You may be wondering why we talked about investments for social protection in this episode? 
 
It’s because according to the International Labour Organisation in 2020, developing countries should invest approximately US$1.2 trillion into social protection. That’s on average 3.8 per cent of a countries GDP to ensure that everyone maintains an adequate standard of living and health care and that the 2030 agenda can be realised. 
 
This means basic income security for children, persons of active age unable to earn income, and older persons. This also includes healthcare that is accessible, available and of high quality such as maternity care. 
 
What type of social protection systems are there? And what do they look like? 
 
When countries design their social protection systems they have two main options, to opt for universal coverage or a more targeted approach. 
 
A universal social protection scheme is one that is available to everyone within a category, for example maybe an age group such as elderly persons. These are often more inclusive and less likely to discriminate against people. However, these schemes aren’t always the best option for all, and some developing countries may opt to choose a targeted approach to benefit those specifically living in poverty. Often this allows funds to be saved and the most vulnerable segment of the population to benefit. Both options come with their benefits and challenges and ultimately it is up to the country to determine which is the best option for them. 
 
Where can you learn about designing social protection for your country? 
 
The Social Protection Toolbox designed by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific is the perfect resource for that. This toolbox was developed to provide support for policymakers to build inclusive social protection systems and for people to greater understand its importance. 
On the website, you’ll find tools and modules to understand what social protection is, how to finance it and how it is linked to the SDGs so that we can learn from other’s practices. 
 
To find out more about the Social protection Toolbox, visit the interactive platform at socialprotection-toolbox.org to better understand the challenges and solutions in your region. 

Natalie Alexander 

It takes a global crisis is produced by the UN Library and Archives Geneva and the SDG lab.  

The production team is Edward Mishaud, Marlene Borlant, Evgeniya Altukhova, Tiffany Verga and Natalie Alexnder.   

If you'd like to give us feedback or share your comments, you can email us at SDG hyphen lab at un.org. and don't forget to subscribe, leave us a review or find us @UNOG library on Twitter and UN Library and Archives Geneva on Facebook.   

Evgeniya Altukhova 

Or find us at SDGLab on Twitter, or SDG Lab at UN Geneva on LinkedIn. 

Natalie Alexander 

Thanks for listening.  

Bye for now. 


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