Social Commons and the Meaning of Social Protection

Social protection is high on the global political agenda today. This is good news, since social protection goes beyond poverty reduction. However, some caution is required, since different people give different meanings to the concept.

For the World Bank, social protection is ‘risk management’. It is important to know that, when the institution put ‘poverty’ on the agenda in 1990, it explicitly stated that governments should not worry about social security/social insurances. Helping the extremely poor was their major task and growth was the solution. The World Bank did not change its policies and poverty reduction had nothing to do with strengthening social policies.

In 2000 the World Bank then proposed its ‘social protection agenda’, making room for social policies but also broadening the concept. It was ‘risk management’ and the ‘risks’ it wanted to cover were social as well as economic, epidemics as well as natural catastrophes.

In the meantime, the ILO prepared a ‘social protection floor’, a programme for income security and social services, meant to be universal.

The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals mention ‘social protection’ in Goal 1.3 (‘including floors’) and plan to fight inequality within and among countries.

The social protection floor and the sustainable development goals can be useful tools for working in the direction of social justice.

In fact, there are two options:

–        Social protection can be at the service of growth and totally compatible with a neoliberal agenda (World Bank and European Union)

o   Social rights subordinated to economic freedoms

o   Social competitiveness, social dumping, targeting to the poor

–        Social protection can be at the service of people and of social justice

This is linked to the contradictions of the welfare state: capitalism does not want any social protection, while at the same time it cannot survive without it.

Social protection can indeed be a correction mechanism to avoid the worst consequences of the economic system (without changing the system). If however social protection is at the service of people and social justice, it will have to change the system. Social protection can indeed also be transformative.

Take e.g. preventive health care: if taken seriously, it cannot allow multinationals to put unhealthy drinks or poisonous pesticides or genetically modified organisms on the market …

Also take labour law: if taken seriously, it has to insure people against accidents, illness, etc. It has to provide for decent wages.

This kind of social protection, aimed at achieving social justice, can also be called social commons.

Social commons are nothing else than universal social protection, based on human rights. It is designed, implemented and monitored in a participatory and democratic way in order to answer the real needs of all people. Hence, it needs also a strong State in order to guarantee people’s rights and give another meaning to democracy. Indeed, elections are not necessarily the best way to guarantee democratic involvement of the people.

The advantage of seeing social protection as social commons is, in the first place, that it promotes democracy and (social) citizenship. It not only protects individual people, but through the participatory efforts, it also protects society (threatened by neoliberalism). At the political level, it promotes legitimacy and loyalty.

Social commons are transformative in that they push the economic system in order to produce what people need. In the same way as ecology has to take care of nature, the economy has to take care of people. In order to stop market dominance, care can be put at the centre of priorities.

On the way to social justice, the economic system will have to be changed, with other fiscal, ecological and human/social priorities.

Social justice and social commons can be achieved step by step, by promoting minimum incomes, minimum wages and work programmes. In this way it can ban poverty.

Social services should also be put at the service of people: health care, education, public transport, libraries, etc.

In the end, social justice is the first condition for peace, as it was already mentioned in the ILO constitution of 1919. The underlying ideology was then, as it should remain today, that globalisation and international trade should not come at the cost of workers.

Social justice goes hand in hand with climate  justice and can be the ideal way for achieving just, democratic societies, away from neoliberalism, for another economy and another world.


Francine Mestrum, PhD

Global Social Justice


(Summary of presentation in workshop Vung Tau City, Vietnam on social protection)