A tool for systemic change

In September 2015 the new Sustainable Development Goals were adopted at the United Nations General Assembly. In its goal 1.3 the text speaks of implementing ‘nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable’.

At this moment, international development organisations are indeed promoting a kind of ‘social protection’ in all developing countries, whereas in Western Europe, the cradle of welfare states, this protection is being dismantled. However, there is no contradiction, since what is happening is a paradigmatic change turning all ‘social protection’ into a pro-growth strategy that is totally compatible with neoliberal philosophy. This social protection is at the service of the economy and of markets. It targets poor people and forgets about the necessary universalism. It allows for small cash transfers to poor people so as to make the privatised social services affordable. However, there is resistance. The ILO proposal for a ‘social protection floor’ clearly tries to preserve some of the basic principles of traditional social protection. It speaks about solidarity and reminds us that social security is a human right. Still, it remains rather limited and is not totally clear about universalism. This initiative has to be fully supported, since it is an excellent starting point for building the social protection that can become a real alternative to neoliberalism.

When we speak of ‘social commons’ we mean that people should participate in the design, implementation and monitoring of the social protection and the social services they want. Social protection is a common, it belongs to the people. In this way, social protection will not only protect all individual people, but will also help to preserve society. It is based on human rights but will allow for broadening the social and economic rights and for including some environmental rights. Putting ‘care’ at the centre of this collective endeavour, this profoundly democratic and participative exercise will contribute to promote the necessary changes in the economic system. It is also the concept of ‘care’ that will make it possible to link up with the climate justice movement. In this way, the social commons can lead to a care system, for people, for society and for nature. It contributes to the sustainability of life.

Social protection, then, is not a correction mechanism, it goes beyond redistribution and insurance, but is also a tool for social and systemic change.