MANILA: The Asia-Pacific Social Protection Week, organised by the Asian Development Bank between September 26-28, came to an end on Thursday with experts underlining the urgency to navigate a world driven by climate-driven disasters.

The takeaway message from the three days of deliberations was simple — there is enough evidence that investment in social protection systems reduces poverty and vulnerabilities. But it needs a stable government, economic stability and a political strength to get it rolling.

Huge progress has been made over the decades in extending social protection,“ said Shahra Razavi, director of the International Labour Organisation’s Social Protection Department, but also emphasised “countries need to take the high road towards universal social protection” as a rights-based approach.

Today, 4.1 billion people around the world are without social protection. But this is the global average and when one unpacks this figure, one realises that in Europe and Central Asia, 83.9 per cent of the population are covered by at least one social protection benefit but in Asia and the Pacific the coverage is just 44.1pc have such coverage.

ADB Social Protection Week concludes with call for creating ‘green opportunities’

High levels of informality (there are two billion informal workers and a majority lack any social protection), flawed tax regimes, lack of trust in systems, complex burdensome administrative procedures, lack of information is compounded by the climate crisis.

But, as pointed out by ADB’s climate specialist, Kate Hughes, while many see climate change with fear, as disruptive, causing energy poverty and gender inequality, if viewed through the lens of just transition, it can provide a huge opportunity in creating “quality jobs, develop green industries”.

One way of improving and expanding the coverage of social safety systems, and which was pointed out in several sessions, was through use of digital technology, which builds resilience.

Michael Samson, research director with the Economic Policy Research Institute, terming social protection a “glue that binds together the planks of integrated climate, development and equity policy frameworks”, warned that the Covid-19 pandemic was a dress rehearsal for the far worse climate crises for which the world needs to prepare.

Mr Samson reminded how the world turned to technology during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown using telehealth, remote learning, accessing e-markets, and virtual tools for working remotely.

‘Today, digital identification and payments are here to stay,’ he said.

This also requires collaborations and partnerships which may make strange bedfellows.

According to Ms Razavi, governments are sometimes stuck when “policy advice from international financial institutions (think IMF) are at cross-purposes with the guiding principles of international social security standards that countries have ratified.” She said it was critical that as international institutions, the tripartite conversation continues to “reduce the incoherence in the technical advice” provided to countries.

“We know higher spending on social protection prevents and substantially lowers poverty,” said Ms Razavi, giving the example of European countries. In these countries, she said, people’s risk of poverty is reduced by 62.6pc through the combined effects of taxes and social protection benefits.

“Countries don’t invest in social protection once they have developed; they invest in it in order to develop and grow,” she said.

But few will deny that social security requires a huge pool of money.

“We know higher spending on social protection lowers poverty,” said Ms Razavi, giving the example of Nordic countries. Even in European countries, she said, people’s risk to poverty is reduced by 62.6pc through the combined effects of paying taxes and being provided with social protection benefits.

“Countries don’t invest in social protection once they have developed; they invest in it in order to develop and grow,” she said.

So where is the money?

Ms Razavi pointed to the urgent need to raise funds by increasing both social security contributions and taxes, for example by foregoing tax exemptions and fiscal concessions to multinational corporations. There is scope for extending social protection to workers in the informal economy, whether they work in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, are self-employed or work on digital platforms, by making tax and contribution systems less cumbersome. “It will also lessen tax evasion,” she added.

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2023

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