On 15 June, as part of the INCLUDE conference, a session on social protection in Africa was held. In this session, African policy makers, bilateral donors, and lead thinkers discussed best practices in social protection responses on the continent with a view to embed these responses in a structural manner in policies of African governments in the light of post-COVID-19. The session highlighted that social protection has become a major instrument in development policies, as it delivers positive results in terms of poverty and inequality eradication. However, budgetary restrictions present policymakers with hard trade-offs. Branding social protection programmes as a worthwhile investment could be one way to stimulate governments to engage with these programmes.
Over the past two decades, the implementation of social protection programmes has seen a great increase in Africa. These programmes have been able to deliver results in terms of poverty reduction, sustainable and resilient economic growth, raising labour productivity and enhancing social cohesion. Institutions such as the World Bank and IMF previously in favour of structural programmes, are now in support of these programmes, convinced by the large evidence showing the positive impact of social protection.
However, there are still several hurdles to overcome in implementing social protection. Especially in contexts of (humanitarian) crises and currently the COVID-19 crisis. It seems that resilience of some programmes relapsed. This shows the urgency of building resilient systems that do not collapse when hit by a crisis. Moreover, budgetary deficits expose the need to select among different priority groups. This creates automatic trade-offs. Who should be considered a priority group? As policy makers, who do you invest in? Do you invest in high productive capacity youth, which can have positive spill over effects on the rest of the economy, or to the most extremely poor and vulnerable, including elderly people who will remain dependent on social protection? Policy makers from Africa stressed that the fiscal space to reach out to all vulnerable groups is simply not available and that indeed these trade-offs are unavoidable.
One way of addressing the gap in the fiscal space is by recognizing that social protection is an investment rather than a donation. A malnourished and stunted population will have negative effects on the productivity of the future labour force. Nevertheless, this will not entirely fill the fiscal gap and thus external donors should step in to support low-income countries. On top of this, African governments pledging to implement social protection must be held accountable to their promises. Civil society organisations could take up the role of watchdogs and monitor governments closely.
The potential of social protection to provide a soft landing post-COVID-19 is certainly there, but we need to make sure that resilient systems are in place building forward post-COVID-19 to properly implement social protection. After all, getting the chance to participate in society and living a dignified life are fundamental human rights, for all of us!