ByÂ Biraj Swain:
For those born in the 90s and the millennial kids, UB40 might sound eerily similar to a tech jargon or an inscrutable financial instrument. But it was super-hit reggae, pop band from Britain/ Birmingham formed in the late 70s. The band has had more than 50 singles in the UK singles chart, and has also achieved considerable international success. They have been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album four times, and in 1984 were nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Group. One of the world’s best-selling music bands, UB40 has sold over 70 million records.
Their name marksÂ a victory against Thatcherite state withdrawal. UB40 refers to the unemployment benefit given to the British citizens on their sign-up and claim form # 40, by the UK government’s Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) at the time of the band’s formation. The instruments for the band were bought from the amount saved up by the lead members who had been recipients of the unemployment benefit. While that was a heart-warming story of the shining outcome of the social protection benefits, the world has come a long way and almost taken a wrong turn.
With austerity and anti-poor politics ruling the mainstream discourse, social protection is either vanishing or becoming abysmally low in quantum, reducing the concept to a screaming joke. While poverty line re-definitions have become the full time obsession of mainstream orthodox economists, the line itself is being diluted to show increasing number of people escaping poverty and doing well. From 1.25 dollar a day to Rs 43 and Rs 32 a day, the line has seen depression, making it a destitution line instead of poverty line. Add to it the increasing burden of non-food expenditure and humanitarian crises (natural and man-made)- increasing number of people on the fringes are falling into a vicious cycle of poverty than escaping it and making big. Some statistics:
1. The 2008-9 food price spikes saw over 115 million people fall into hunger trap as per the FAO, and the countries were mostly Asian, i.e. Indonesia, China and India!
2. From BBC’s World Business Report to Al Jazeera’s Counting the Cost, the slump in manufacturing sector and how it is hitting wages and quality of life hard, is a constant news refrain
3. The public investments in key sectors like agriculture, health, education and infrastructure has been shrinking
4. The food inflation in India has become an enduring enigma. The double digit food inflation has even surpassed the inflation in the emerging economies, BRICS (Brazil Russia India China and South Africa) block
5. The National Nutrition Monitoring Board claims over 37% of adult Indians have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 18.5. (The World Health Organisation recommends any country with 40% adult population with BMI less than 18.5 as famine afflicted). By those standards India has stable famine condition!
Yet, Asia remains the stellar performer of the global economy. And yet, the region is lagging behind on one key indicator: investment in social protection in Asia and the Pacific region is lower than in any part of the developing world except sub-Saharan Africa. In recognition of this fact, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) made a bold call for renewed efforts to expand social protection across the continent, regretting the failure of Asian states, and of its own programmes, to prioritise social protection over the past decade. Dedicated social protection projects accounted for only 2.5% of the total value of the ADB portfolio in 2002—2011, a figure that has remained essentially unchanged for 15 years.
Why does this matter? Will continued growth not narrow the gaps and provide a decent standard of living for all? In a brilliant call, Olivier De Schutter, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; Magdalena SepÃºlveda, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights wrote in 2012, “The evidence suggests not. In Asia’s fastest-growing economies millions have been lifted out of poverty, but the benefits have accrued to certain regions and cities, particular sectors and population groups, leaving many mired in poverty and dangerously disconnected from the new motors of growth. In China, for example, rural dwellers are now up to six times poorer than urban populations…Hunger and poverty have not been banished by economic growth. In low-income countries – and particularly those where imports account for a large share of the food supply —a small spike in food prices means that the poorest can no longer afford to put food on the table. Worse, they cannot turn to the State for help. This is the reality for nearly 80% of the world’s poorest, to whom basic social protection is unavailable…Some Asian countries are starting to turn the tables and invest in social protection. There is room for improvement and critique of all these schemes. But by investing in them they are not only improving the lives of their citizens, but are also reaping the benefits of a series of multiplier effects.”
From the Filipino conditional cash transfer programme’s success to the Mexican Oportunidades’ and Brazilian Bolsa Familia and Chilean Solidaria, the counter-narrative show-casing success of universal social protection where the state reaches out rather than fiddles its fingers waiting for the poor to reach it, are many. And China and India are also providing their own success templates.
De Schutter and Sepulveda further advocated, “In India, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act reached 52.5 million households in 2009-2010. While corruption allegedly dogs the scheme, it has nonetheless proven to be a valuable tool in supporting rural incomes, while stimulating other positive outcomes for longer-term economic engagement: the scheme earmarks one third of work for rural women, thus encouraging women to work outside the home and improving their bargaining position on the labour market. But for others, economic and fiscal constraints prevent even the first steps being taken. Many smaller economies, including some of Asia’s poorest States, may not have the capacity to afford the surging expenditure on social protection that is required especially in the wake of shocks such as droughts, floods, disease epidemics or sudden food price spikes that afflict large population groups, while simultaneously slashing a State’s tax and export earnings…”
They didn’t stop at batting for social protection but made a public call for a global fund and also thought through the brass-tacks of the same, “Countries must assist each other when the risks are too big for a single State to absorb, stepping in to complement national efforts. In order to make such support available in a concrete and reliable form, a global funding mechanism is urgently needed…allow least developed countries to draw on international funding to meet the basic costs of putting social protection in place, while the Fund could also be called upon to underwrite these schemes against the risks of excess demand triggered by major shocks. The total costs of introducing a basic social protection floor worldwide are estimated to amount to 2 per cent to 6 per cent of global GDP…Social protection for all must become an Asian goal and a global goal potentially initiated by a group of pioneering donor countries and agencies – could encourage and embolden States to build on existing social protection schemes, establish new ones, and ultimately create comprehensive social protection systems that would deliver dignity and basic rights to those yet to benefit from Asian economic development, while putting that development on a secure and inclusive footing for the future.”
On the occasion of Action/2015 launch, International Humanitarian Day and International Youth Day, we need to re-iterate that impassioned appeal of two inspirational UN Special Rapporteurs to make Social Protection a universal right and set it at a dignified floor and establish a global fund to resource the same. It should be an important goal of SDGs and the floor and fund should be key targets.
For those sceptics and neo-con economists who point to the corruption in social protection programmes to call for slashing the allocations and cutting the resource chord, sure there’s room for improvement, for mainstreaming accountability. But the most corrupt and criminalised sectors are defence procurement, heavy infrastructure machinery, real estate and extractives allocations. How come we don’t hear slashing of budgets on those fronts and shut down of those activities?
And before I forget, yes to the day, another intrepid group will create another pop-band with social protection/unemployment benefit entitlement…here’s to UB40!
About the author: Biraj Swain works on Poverty, Public Policy and Governance in South Asia and Horn East and Central Africa. She is adjunct Faculty at Pondicherry Central University, UNU, UNESCO-MISARC. She is also the co-director Global Call to Action against Poverty.
GCAP works to challenge the institutions and processes that perpetuate poverty and inequality across the world to defend and promote human rights, gender justice, social justice and security needed for survival and peace. GCAP is one of the leading civil society coalitions calling for radical and transformative SDGs.