Social protection is a vast area, both as a policy discourse and as development practice which continues to evolve as the world faces new challenges in tackling poverty, disparity and underdevelopment.
In the context of a developing country like Pakistan, social protection has evolved into a range of development practices and activities from direct assistance as income support, food security to livelihood protection for the poor segment of society. Direct assistance programs vary from cash transfer programs to basic needs’ support and consumption smoothing initiatives. Evidence suggests that, in a situation of emergency or disaster when human vulnerabilities are multiplied, cash transfer initiatives serve well as immediate consumption support. However, in the regular poverty alleviation programs such initiatives can be effective only if they are implemented as part of a long-term framework of socioeconomic transformation.
Social protection is considered a basic human right guaranteed in several international covenants and treaties. The constitution of Pakistan exclusively stipulates the provision of social security for all citizens of the country. Pakistan is one of the few developing countries that stipulate social security as an explicit fundamental right in its constitution. Article 38 (a) (d) & (e) of the constitution of Pakistan states: “The state shall provide for all persons employed in the service of Pakistan or otherwise, social security by compulsory social insurance or other means; provide basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, housing, education and medical relief, for all such citizens, irrespective of sex, creed, caste, or race, as are permanently or temporarily unable to earn their livelihood on account of infirmity, sickness or unemployment; reduce disparity in the income and earnings of individuals.”
Historically, social protection programs in Pakistan have either been considered as ad-hoc or interim interventions during an emergency or as mouthpiece programs to appease an international donor rather than making them part of social protection policy framework. Apparently, the commitment made in the constitution remained largely unfulfilled for its citizens. It has two reasons: first, it requires the allocation of large resources to achieve ambitious commitment in a poor country like Pakistan, marred by misplaced social policy priorities. Second, in countries where constitutional sanctity is compromised for short-term political gains, the longer-term national development goals cannot be enacted, even if the constitution promises rights and privileges to its citizens.
Furthermore, social protection has been restricted for the public and formal nonagricultural sector in the country. However, social protection schemes for the private sector were introduced in the 1970s during populist reforms at that time. Many of the schemes are functional to date, along with new schemes, but the ambition to increase the coverage of such schemes for a larger section of the workforce in the informal economy has been ignored
Having said that, Pakistan has a number of social protection programs being carried out by provincial and federal governments for the welfare of workers like old-age benefits, cash transfers, health cards and medical facilities. However, these schemes have proven to be less effective in extending their benefits to a vast majority of semi-skilled and unskilled workers of the informal sector.
The existing social protection programs stop short of providing a holistic perspective about their benefit distribution and limit their outreach to the formal sector only. In addition to capacity and intention issues which are generally packaged as challenges, the implementing agencies face mounting criticism for the inefficacy when they seek to operationalize standalone social protection initiatives in our national context of rising multidimensional poverty. The notion of social protection is narrowly defined in the mainstream discourse of development and ironically the existing literature does not provide any holistic view beyond a few case studies from the international arena.
Existing academic literature, practitioners’ reports and policy documents suggest that the term ‘social protection’ is interchangeable with social security. The term was first coined by the UN. Generally, social protection can be described as a service that ‘a society provides to individuals and households through public and collective measures to guarantee them a minimum standard of living and to protect them against low or declining standards of living arising out of a number of basic risks and needs’.
The concept of social security is enshrined in Article 22?of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which specifies that every member of society is entitled to have social security to those whose earning capacity is interrupted due to ‘contingencies’ such as sickness, work injury, disablement and old age. Effective social protection policies and initiatives should increase employment opportunities, shorten the loss of human capital, and protect people from falling into poverty consequent to financial or economic crises Successful protective measures should shape a significant component of social policy and encourage societal cohesion.
Pakistan is one of the most populated countries in the world with an estimated population of 220 million. The estimated labour force of the country is around 74 million; 67.5 million are employed and 6.5 million are unemployed; the unemployment rate is 8.8 percent (Labor Force Survey. 2019). The poverty rate in Pakistan is higher than other counties in the region, an estimated 39 percent. The incidence of poverty and unemployment is higher in rural areas particularly in the agricultural sector as compared to urban areas. With the onset of the Covod-19 pandemic, the employment rate has further increased to 12 percent, with a six percent increase in multidimensional poverty.
The increasing unemployment trend is alarming; therefore, new employment opportunities should also be created for the labor force. According to the Planning Commission of Pakistan, the population and labour force of the country consists of about 63 percent youth below the age of 30 years. The demographic statistics show that the employment opportunities for youth are a crucial issue. The unemployment rate in rural areas is highly concentrated in the women workforce while they continue to perform domestic labour which is an unaccounted for economic activity. The women living in rural areas have less opportunities and skills to come out of this highly exploitative domestic labor.
According to ADB reports on the Social Protection Index: the total spending of Pakistan on social protection is less than three percent of its GDP for its poor population. The country’s score on the Social Protection Index (SPI) is 0.047, which is lower than South Asian countries’ average (SPI) score – 0.061. The reason for the low spending is misplaced policy priorities and lack of political intent to devise a long-term social protection policy roadmap in the country. Furthermore, the complex procedure to qualify for social assistance makes it more difficult for the destitute people to access health, education and unemployment related benefits particularly the workers and women employed in the informal sector.
Given this grim situation, Pakistan needs to beef up its social protection assistance – in particular in the informal sector – as a social policy priority. Though the ongoing Ehsaas Program promises some additional resource allocation, it has to be integrated with a long-term strategy of poverty alleviation so that the poor have the opportunity to graduate out of poverty.
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.