More on social protection and system change

(with a reference to our Global Charter on Social Protection Rights)

The world is full of contradictions. In one part of the world people are leaving their homes and their country, travelling towards a very uncertain future, risking their lives, saying ‘if we cannot find freedom, we prefer to die’. And very often they do lose their life in the Mediterranean or some inhuman detention center, ship or train. In other parts of the world, people are free and elect a president that is homophobic, sexist and racist, that wants to kill democracy in a fury of privatisations, weapons and antisocial policies. They consciously abandon their freedom.In some parts of the world people have social protection, health care, public services and decent wages, however imperfect these may be. But some of them dream of a paradise where no one is obliged to work for a living, where money grows on trees and where governments can decide on what someone needs to survive. They willingly would abandon the protection they have and will not fight for it.

In other parts of the world people work in slave-like conditions, are badly payed and cannot afford basic health care or education for their children. International organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) or the United Nations (UN) have adopted programmes so as to change this unacceptable state of affairs, but local governments are not always ready to act against the interests of multinational corporations.

And yes, the world still counts around 750 million extremely poor people, suffering hunger or malnutrition, with children dying before their fifth birthday. All the same, the richest 1 % of the world population saw its incomes rise by 60 % these past twenty years, while the 30 % poorest only got 4 to 7 % more.

In 2017 82 % of the wealth that was created went to the richest 1 %, the 50 % poorest got nothing. This extra wealth for the rich would be enough to eradicate poverty seven times …

This list could be made much longer, with the huge amounts of wealth in tax havens, the illegal financial flows from poor countries and the peanuts of so-called development aid.

And while workers in the rich west with its welfare states have organised and struggled for social and economic rights, locally, nationally and globally, from a century ago to most recently, some people are now saying we should not try to organise beyond the local level, we should wait for spontaneous and horizontal organisation, bottom-up.

Waiting for Godot.

No, the world is not easy to understand.

What can we do about it?

Obviously, a lot. We can organise and campaign for a sustainable world, for equitable trade, for an end to financial loopholes, for committing multinational corporations to respect human rights… All these things are happening, and we should thank the many people and civil society organisations spending their time, energy and resources on these crucial issues for the future of mankind.

Many people are also campaigning for making the global promises of ILO and UN become reality: social protection floors and sustainable development. And many trade unions do try to organise transnationally, again, a very positive effort.

But so much more is possible, so many more positive messages could be sent out and so many more actions could be taken.

All it requires is some quiet reflection and a willingness to see the world in grey, that is not in black or white, but in all the many compatible shades in between. Let me explain.

Social protection is often seen as a pure correction mechanism for a failing capitalist system. Even if workers, and people in general, badly need health care and pensions and decent wages, some activists think they should not bother about such a reformist policy. The priority should go towards system change.

Others think we should be concerned first and foremost about poor people, they should get all the available help and afterwards we may see whether we still have to do something for the others.

However logical this may seem at first sight, it is completely wrong. Social protection can be a direct tool for working at social justice and for promoting system change, including environmental justice, while targeting the poor is not a good priority.

Not poverty reduction but social justice

Even if the existing welfare states, born after the second world war, were a compromise between capital and labour, they always had their enemies. When the World Bank launched its poverty reduction policies in 1990, it explicitly said that social insurances should not be provided, or at least not by the States. Insurance is an economic activity, so if people want it, they can buy it on the market. Most civil society organisations were so happy with the new focus on poverty, they preferred to not notice this ‘small’ sidestep.

But with structural adjustment and neoliberal policies emerging all over in the world, even in rich countries, it became clear that welfare states were indeed being dismantled and public services were privatised. Social investment in human capital became the new mantra, and an investment clearly needs return, so people have to work more and more. The return is not for workers but for shareholders, the share of labour in national GDPs has been falling for thirty years now.

It is necessary but not enough to fight poverty, basically for three reasons.

First of all, if we want the wealthier people to contribute to the fight against poverty, they will also want to get something in return. There is ample evidence that policies for the poor rapidly become poor policies. In all societies, solidarity and reciprocity are immensely important and quintessential elements for cohesion. Universal policies, then, can help the poor and the rich, while the rich will indeed pay more for the poor than the non-rich. But they will also get pensions and health care and family allowances. Solidarity means reciprocity, that is, all give and all receive, the strongest shoulders bearing the largest burden. We cannot expect the poor to take the whole burden on their own shoulders through work or growth. Redistribution policies are needed.

The second reason is that we should not accept an economic system to produce poverty and at the end of the process have poverty reduction policies as a remedial mechanism. Poverty should, in the very first place, be avoided, and this is perfectly possible with a solid social protection system. When people are ill, they get health care and an allowance, when they lose their job, they get unemployment benefits, when they get old, they get a pension and if, for one or other reason, they cannot be active on the labour market, they get a guaranteed minimum income. Clearly, today’s poor people have to be helped, but poverty has no reason of existence in our rich world, it should be eradicated. It should be made illegal. We have easy and very efficient tools to do just that.

The third reason is inequality. In spite of slowly declining global inequality – thanks to a rapidly enriching China – income and wealth inequality is currently extremely high. We can modestly reduce this inequality in the way the World Bank proposes, raising the incomes of the 40 % poorest but even if that objective were met, it would not stop the 10 or 1 % rich to continue to get richer and richer and so, global inequality would continue to rise. We cannot fight inequality when only aiming for the poor, the rich clearly have to contribute through contributions and taxes.

Finally, all people need protection, against economic and social setbacks and against natural disasters. This protection can best and most efficiently be organised collectively, since risks can be shared. Individual insurance can only exacerbate inequalities.

Why social protection policies should come first

There are other reasons why we can usefully start with the promotion of social protection policies.

The most important reason, obviously, is that social protection is a human right. It is mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is the object of the International Compact on Economic, Social and Cultural rights of 1966. These economic and social rights are often said to be of lesser importance than civil and political rights, though this reasoning is problematic. Some economic and social rights can be introduced progressively, according to the development process and the available resources of countries, but some of these rights, such as food and health are as vital for survival and political participation as civil and political rights. They should be respected and fulfilled immediately.

A second reason is that social protection not only has a direct impact on the survival and living conditions of human beings, but indirectly it also helps to promote other changes.

Take the environment.

To-day, most urgent environmental decisions to take are brought to the general public in a rather moralistic way. Clearly, CO2 emissions have to be reduced drastically, and the most important responsible States and corporations have to act urgently. Citizens also can contribute to the transition: they are told to eat less meat, to reduce the use of private cars and airplanes, to stop using plastic straws … these are all measure that certainly would help, but people are, in general, not so keen on positively reacting to moral incentives. Most of all, they are rather reluctant to accept measures that, at first view, limit their freedom and their comfort. Promises of more ‘well-being’ or happiness do not help.

The same goes for the discourse on de- or post-growth. Our economic model should indeed abandon its growth objective. But it does not mean growth should be reduced overall, certain sectors surely can continue to grow without harming the environment, though this is never explained. What has to change is not growth as such, but an extractive and industrial model that does destroy nature and very often even human beings. Moreover, just go and try to convince the Chinese to stop growing or the Congolese to stop exploiting minerals.

But what if a positive message could be sent out?

What if the government could envisage a huge housing programme, offering better energy-saving housing to the poor and solving a lot of isolation problems? What if municipalities could offer good and cheap – or even free – public transport systems, so that people would be happy to abandon their cars? A positive and social measure can be a better incentive than a moralising one.

Thinking of health opens the door even further. If we want to focus on preventive health care, we should campaign for better air quality, for less toxic pesticides in agriculture and so disempower some multinational corporations. People campaigning to-day for cleaner air do this because of their health, more than in favour of a healthy planet.

And if we want a more equitable trade system, we might start by promoting subsidies for locally grown food so that it becomes cheaper.

Social protection is not only about reproduction, it directly touches production, such as in the fight for land and water for peasants.

In other words, there are thousands of social measures that can be promoted to help people and to promote a cleaner environment, better health an fairer trade. The so-called ‘social determinants’ of health all point in the direction of a much needed comprehensive social protection geared towards social justice.

The advantages for democracy and, in the end, peace, are very clear. Participation in the conceptualisation, implementation and monitoring of social policies can enhance democracy and active citizenship. That is why it can be very useful to consider social protection as a common, something that is ours and that citizens should decide on.

One century ago, after the first world war, the Constitution of the ILO stated explicitly that peace is not possible without social justice. This is as true in 2018 as it was in 1918. The current globalisation process is based on growing inequalities and competition between workers worldwide. This is precisely what the ILO wanted to avoid with global rules and standards.

Social protection, then, can contribute to social transformation and to system change. The many civil society movements that are working for peace, for fair trade, for a better financial system and for climate justice are doing very important work. It would be useful if they could add social protection to their campaigns, not only in order to enhance their own cases, but also to coordinate the work amongst themselves and with trade unions.

Spontaneous and horizontal organisation is extremely important in the current world, but it will never be enough to realize real change. Movements have to work together at the local, the national and the global level, they should coordinate and organise.

A global charter for social protection rights

Rights never come and fall out the sky, in every single case and all over history, they are the result of social struggle, with setbacks and progress.

This is why movements need to develop their own agendas and not be content with what has already been given to them, such as social protection floors and sustainable development goals. These programmes are very important but also very institutional and limited. They have to be supported, but if movements want to really mobilise, they have to define their own priorities.

That is why, in  the social justice cluster of the Asia Europe People’s Forum, we have drafted a Global Charter on Social Protection Rights ( This is not a binding text, it is not demanding of signatories to agree with each and every point of it or to commit on campaigning on all the twenty points. In fact, it is a kind of reference document. We want to promote a comprehensive, universal social protection system, based on human rights and funded through solidarity mechanisms. We want to promote an emancipatory and transformative social protection, not a correction system for the currently existing economic system. We want to use social protection to effectively protect people and to promote system change.

Because there should be no mistake about who are the enemies today. There first of all is a neoliberal system promoting social protection as a way to promote growth, to serve markets, to privatise public service and to ‘invest’ in ‘human capital’. An there also is a populist right-wing movement, defending social protection as a way of winning elections, making promises to people and defending so-called ‘traditional values’.

This is what progressive and emancipatory movements should react to. Working with the Global Charter can help to direct the definition of priorities away from misleading objectives.

We hope the charter can be widely discussed and supported ( . And we hope social protection can take back its priority place in the agenda of all social movements. Social protection aimed at social justice is the overarching objective of all our efforts to build a better and sustainable world. In the end, social protection is a mechanism for the sustainability of people and of nature.

Francine Mestrum

Global Social Justice