Originally Published 2014-05-22 06:00:50 Published on May 22, 2014
A World Bank report on 'State of Social Safety Nets' paints an overall positive picture, with over one billion people worldwide being included under at least one safety net initiative. But the reality is that more than two-thirds of the world's 1.2 billion poorest are not covered.
How large are our social safety nets?
"The World Bank released its first report of the series on ’State of Social Safety Nets’ on May 13, 2014. Safety nets are non-contributory government transfers aimed at providing assistance to the socially and economically marginalised sections of the society. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their work ’India: Development and Participation’ posited the capability approach to freedom as a critique to the Rawlsian concept of equality of opportunity of the generalized citizen. According to them, mere provision of resources and not means to enable citizens to have access to resources is not empowerment, and in typical societies, not all individuals are entitled to free and equal opportunities. Much of a citizen’s access to public and private goods depends on his or her social and economic standing. It is only when resources are backed by the state’s support that citizens are able to access the resources to enhance their capabilities and fulfil their potential. Evoking this concept, social nets promote human capacities and efficiency by undertaking welfare legislation for the provision of essential goods and services like health, education, employment and housing for those who cannot afford them. However, inequalities are different for different countries and so are the curative policies in place. For example, in India, the Sarba Siksha Abhijan and the Mid-Day meal scheme are reflective of the need to curtail educational inequality. The Sarba Siksha Abhijan aims at providing free and compulsory education to all children below the age of 14. Additionally, Abhijeet Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their book ’Poor Economics’ talk about a "nutrition based poverty trap" existing in India, especially visible among the youngest section of the population. The mid-day meal scheme thus aims at providing nutritional support to eliminate chronic hunger among schoolchildren. Mid-day meal also serves the dual purpose of increasing enrolment rates to primary schools because poor parents more likely to send their children to school, especially girls, when there is an assurance of a free and nutritional meal, which is often the only square meal of the day for many of these children. The World Bank report on ’State of Social Safety Nets’ found that each country has at least one social safety net programme in place. School feeding is the most common safety net programme in place in almost 130 countries. This finding is also supported by the World Development Report (2014).1 That study signals that nutritional interventions have the largest positive cost-benefit ratios of any measures to decrease risk. So, governments find it beneficial to invest in nutritional lunch programmes as they are the earliest to show beneficial results in the form of better height and weight gain among children, better retention power and have added benefits like higher enrolment rates in schools among others. The five largest safety nets are all from populous middle-income countries, and not surprisingly, BRICS countries figure extensively in the list. With a total of 486 million people in the five countries, they cover almost half of the global targeted population. The mid-day meal scheme, the school feeding programme of India, targets 113 million and the ’Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA)’ targets 193 million people.2 These two are the largest social safety nets in the world. Adding to that, China’s ’Di Bao’ (78 million) and the Brazil’s ’Bolsa Familia’ (52.4 million) are the largest unconditional and conditional cash transfer schemes in the world respectively.3 Brazil’s another programme, ’Fome Zero’ or Zero Hunger agenda, initiated in 2003, had brought down the country’s child mortality rate by 13 percentage point besides bringing up 20 million people above the poverty line. Brazil’s school lunch programme is also interesting because of the economic linkages it creates. 30 per cent of each school lunch is sourced from local markets, thus encouraging community participation and thriving of local markets. The success of the programme, providing a social safety net to 53 per cent of the Brazilian poor, has given the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff a boost in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for October later this year. Rousseff has announced a 10 percent increase in the social security transfers with additional tax cuts for the poorest Brazilians.4 Another BRICS country, South Africa, has the largest programme in the continent in its ’The Child Support Grant’. South Africa’s scheme is followed by Ethiopia’s ’Productive Safety Net Programme’, which is largely externally financed. The Gini Ratio, which measures the rate of inequality in a country, always lies between 0 and 1. The higher the value, more unequal a country is. China, India and Brazil are all highly unequal countries. However, in Brazil the Gini index came down from 0.61 to 0.54, while it went up in both India, from about 0.31 to 0.33, and China, from 0.29 to 0.42 after social safety nets programmes were undertaken.5 Facing the common challenges of lack of social security, the BRICS nations have proposed to work together, learning from each other’s mistakes and adopting best practices. While, India’s scheme may be the largest in the world, it unfortunately is so only in absolute numbers, covering 18 percent of the population. Effectively, it encompassed only 25.3 percent of the poorest 20 percent.6 India also spends the second lowest, following only Afghanistan on social safety as a percentage of GDP among the South Asian countries. The maximum share of population covered by safety nets differs and decreases as the income of the country drops. An average 15 per cent of the population of low income countries is covered by safety nets, rising to cover over 50 per cent in upper-middle income economies. The South-American countries perform exceptionally well in the coverage of the poorest 20 per cent. Chile (89.7 per cent), Peru (85.02 per cent), Ecuador (84.2 per cent) and Costa Rica (67.8 per cent7) all lay above the halfway mark. On what seems as a positive note, 30 per cent of African countries and 50 per cent of Asian countries have some social protection policy in place. The report also indicates that lower income countries often rely heavily on external financing to meet their social safety needs. For example, of the 25 African countries surveyed, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso are most dependent on external finance. Arup Banerji, the World Bank’s Director for Social Protection and Labour, remarks that "developing countries spend 1.6 percent of their GDP on social safety nets".8 These figures are replicated in the report which found that social safety net spending as percentage of GDP is higher in the rich countries than in the poor countries. It ranges from an average of 1.9 percent of GDP in 14 high-income countries, 1.8 in 39 upper-middle-income countries, 1.5 in 34 lower-middle-income countries, to 1.1 percent of GDP in 20 low-income countries.9 Many of the oil-exporting Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries spend larger amounts on fuel subsidies, often ignoring other necessary issues that the poorer segments of the population suffer from. It is surprisingly similar in countries like India, Bangladesh and Malaysia that also follow this practice. Fuel subsidies are found to be regressive by many economists, increasing fiscal pressure on the government and with most of its benefits aligning to the highest strata of the society. The review has extensive coverage and is based on 475 programmes in 146 countries. Though an overall positive picture is painted by the report, with over 1 billion people worldwide being included under at least one safety net initiative, it has been seen that more than two-thirds of the world’s 1.2 billion poorest are not covered.10 The social security measures put in by the countries are commendable, but unless they are reinforced by efficient functioning and accountability, their power to reach the poorest households gets reduced. REFERENCES:  The World Development Report (2014), World Bank  The Social Safety Net Report, May 2014, World Bank  http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2014/05/13/social-safety-nets-expand-better-reaching-poorest  A richer approach to poverty reduction, SHAILAJA FENNELL, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/a-richer-approach-to-poverty-reduction/article3803922.ece  http://thebricspost.com/5-top-social-programs-in-india-china-brazil-world-bank/#.U3murNKSza9  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-27233276 (The writer is a research intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
< class="text11verdana">< class="text11verdana">1 World Development Report 2014, Pg:8 2 The State of Social Safety Nets, May 2014, World Bank, Executive Summary 3 http://thebricspost.com/5-top-social-programs-in-india-china-brazil-world-bank/#.U3murNKSza9 4 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-27233276 5 http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2014/05/13/social-safety-nets-expand-better-reaching-poorest 6 The State of Safety Nets Report, Annexe, Pg:84-67 7 The State of Social Safety Nets, May 2014, World Bank, Annexe 5; Pg:84-87 8 http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2014/05/13/social-safety-nets-expand-better-reaching-poorest 9 The State of Safety Nets, May 2014 10 Ibid.   "
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