The World Day of Social Justice takes place in challenging circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed 85 million people into extreme poverty in Asia and the Pacific. Conflict, surging energy prices and inflation have led to a cost-of-living crisis, upending lives and disrupting livelihoods. Inequalities have been exacerbated; the disadvantaged worst affected.
It's hard to think of a time when the need for greater social justice has been more acute. So, the case we’re making today is for universal social protection to be placed at the heart of our region’s recovery effort. No other policy could do more to achieve greater social justice. If upheld, this human right could underpin it for years to come.
The right to social security and an adequate standard of living is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is clearly stated in the UDHR that: “everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security”. Almost all countries in the region are signatories. Most have incorporated the principle into their constitutions and have an obligation to provide social protection. Everyone, not just the privileged few, should be able to rely on a basic level of financial security in times of need.
Yet today, more than half of women, men and children in Asia and the Pacific are denied adequate social protection. Public spending in this area remains below the global average, with many countries dedicating less than 2 per cent of GDP to social protection. Children are most exposed; over 80 per cent have no social protection whatsoever. The pandemic laid these gaps bare. Where social protection systems existed, responses were effective. Where they did not, precious time was lost as authorities scrambled to respond.
We need to design social protection schemes around when people need benefits. At birth and during the first 1000 days of a child’s life, when undernourishment and insufficient healthcare have irreversible consequences on cognitive development. During pregnancy and childbirth, when women are vulnerable. During unemployment, illness or injury which causes loss of earning. In the face of disability which too often brings insecurity. And in old age, which condemns too many to precarity. These are periods – life cycle or labour contingencies - during which we all need support.
Universal social protection should be there to provide it. We’re talking of unconditional income transfers that provide a basic level of financial security to every individual in times of need. Where the individual not household is defined as the primary beneficiary of social protection and benefits are extended according to simple and objective criteria.
Ideally, a non-contributory scheme should provide unconditional cash transfers to anyone in a defined contingency. These cash benefits must be adequate, enabling everyone access to a basic standard of living in times of need. This basic income security can ensure everyone can weather disruptions without resorting to negative coping mechanisms. Estimated at a cost between 2 and 6 per cent of GDP, universal schemes are within reach for most countries in the region.
An effective way to extend coverage is through a pragmatic mix of non-contributory and contributory social protection schemes. A multitiered system should be comprised of a first tier guaranteeing a basic financial security and funded by public expenditure; a second designed to provide further financial security, typically funded by mandatory social insurance; and a third funded by voluntary contributions for those who can afford it. Put simply, a basic standard should be extended to all, but higher benefits may be received based on previous contributions.
Building such a system requires time and money, but an incremental approach is possible. Governments with constrained fiscal space can achieve universal social protection by initially limiting coverage to a clearly defined group facing a specific contingency, or by first extending low benefits, before expanding the group or the benefit levels over time. Nepal introduced a pension initially restricted to those aged over 75, before later reducing this to 70. A universal child benefit should reach all children up until the age of 18 but may first be extended for the first few years, as in Timor-Leste.
Social protection yields tangible benefits that strengthen the mutual obligations between members of society and the state. It increases people’s willingness to pay taxes and enhance government revenues. This, in turn, supports further expenditure on public services and builds trust in government. It’s time we make this virtuous cycle the norm.
Recognizing this, ESCAP member States adopted an Action Plan to Strengthen Regional Cooperation on Social Protection as a shared strategy, vision and platform to achieve more inclusive and comprehensive social protection systems. Let’s act on it and ensure illness and unemployment, pregnancy and old age, disability and injury, never again push people into poverty. For this social justice, we need universal protection in Asia and the Pacific.