The initiative for Universal Social Protection by ILO and the World Bank could not be more timely. As a staff member at UNRISD which has been listed as one of those which have been “fighting for universal systems for years” by Isabel, I would like to express my full support for the initiative. In particular, I would like to emphasize the importance of documenting country experiences on universal social protection coverage (one of the ILO-World Bank actions to achieve the shared vision of universal social protection) while highlighting two important points of consideration based on the UNRISD's prior and ongoing research on universalism.
UNRISD has been arguing for universalism in social policy and universal social protection over the last three decades. Up until the early 2000s, ideas and practices relating to social protection programmes or social policies in developing countries were dominated by targeting and safety net approaches. Under the circumstance, UNRISD’s take on the issues of universality and argument for a universal approach to social policy was polemic against the deficiencies of targeting(Thandika Mkandawire 2005). As the international development community started to introduce universalism into key development agendas, such as the Millennium Development Goals and their call for universal primary education and the WHO’s initiatives for universal health coverage, UNRISD's research started to pay attention to the diverse pathways to universalism.
This shift is based on two crucial points which have been central to UNRISD's social policy research framework. First, social policy (and universal social protection) is a historical construct from the production of and interactions between economic, social and political elements. Second, social policy (and universal social protection) is inevitably diverse since it is shaped by specific national and local contexts and institutional structures, norms and practices, as well as power relations between and within states.
From these I would like to raise an important point we must keep in mind when we document country experiences on how they have moved towards and achieved universal social protection coverage; focusing on the design and function of a specific programme alone cannot provide us with sufficient data and valuable lessons for achieving social protection. Political economy approaches which situate the welfare state or social policy development within the development trajectory is absolutely crucial to understanding the successful achievement of universal social protection.
Another crucial point for documenting country experiences is the recognition of the distinctive nature of sectoral policies (health, education, housing, etc.) as a system of provision of distinctive goods and services. Pension programmes are different from health programmes in that they are shaped by “different intermediate relations, processes, structures, agencies and ideational factors” (Ben Fine 2014). Universalism or universal social protection as a vision should be translated into much more detailed concepts and policy advice reflecting the distinctive nature of sectoral policies.
The recent UNRISD research project on the experiences of emerging economies in moving towards universal social security (particularly in healthcare), which has been developed around this framework of universalism and the distinctive nature of sectoral policies, may be interesting to those sharing the similar concerns.
United Nations Research Institute for Social Development
Palais des Nations, 1211, Geneva 10, Switzerland