DEVELOPMENT: Europe Wants Social Protection for the Poor in Africa

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By Jaya Ramachandran

European institutions dealing with international development have realized that poverty cannot be eradicated by concessional loans, technical aid, grants or budget aid alone. Something more is required: social protection for the poor.

The European Report on Development (ERD), launched in Brussels at the European Development Days, suggests that, together with conventional development policy measures, social protection could help sub-Saharan Africa combat poverty by reducing its vulnerability to shocks and promoting inclusive development and growth.

The rationale behind an add-on to prevailing aid policies is that though extreme poverty -- defined as income below 1.25 U.S. dollar per day -- dropped from 58 percent in 1990 to 51 percent in 2005 in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of poor rose to 388 million, from 296 million in 1990, due to rapid population growth.

Also the 2006 food crisis plunged an estimated 30 million additional Africans into extreme poverty, according to World Bank estimates.

To make things worse, the recent global financial and economic crises slowed growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa from an average of 5 percent per year from 2000 to 2008, to 2.5 percent in 2009. Projections by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund show that this may lead to 20 million fewer Africans being lifted out of poverty by 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals.

Launching the ERD titled 'Social Protection for Inclusive Development -- A new perspective in EU cooperation with Africa', European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs said on December 7:
"Social protection is often taken for granted in Europe. In fact, it has played an important historic role in eradicating poverty in Europe and, if well designed and managed, building on Africa's own priorities and specificities, it could deliver similar success in Africa."

The significance of this statement is underlined by the fact that the European Commission, executive arm of the 27-nation European Union (EU), is the largest provider of official development assistance (ODA) -- some 49 billion Euros in 2009 -- in the world.

But, as the ERD points out, social protection is not yet fully on the EU development map, "despite the compatibility between the EU’s social model based on redistribution and international redistribution aimed at strengthening partner country social models".

The EU still does not have a comprehensive framework or strategy to promote social protection as an integral part of development policy. Actors such as the European Working Group on Social Protection and Decent Work in Development Cooperation have been putting pressure to give social protection "the prominence it deserves" in EU development policy, which in turn would lend credibility to its commitment to the social dimension of globalisation.

However, social protection is beginning to make inroads into EU development policy. With the publication, in November 2010, of the Green Paper on Development, the European Commission launched a public consultation to pave the way for a modernised EU development policy, which will be set out in a communication in 2011.


Giorgia Giovannetti of the European University Institute, the lead author of this year's report -- the second-ever since 2009 -- is quite optimistic about integrating social protection: "A number of African countries already have social protection programmes in place. It is increasingly on the policy agenda of African leaders and several EU donors already support social protection based on the belief that it is both a human right and a catalyst for promoting inclusive development and pro-poor growth."

He adds: "This year's edition of the ERD concludes that these piecemeal efforts are not enough. Social protection needs to become a central and coordinated component of the development policies of African countries, the EU and its member states, and other donors. Our analysis shows that it is feasible, affordable, and that the time is ripe."

The time is ripe indeed. Despite weathering the recent global downturn with its economic growth mostly intact, sub-Saharan Africa is facing serious structural development challenges and is vulnerable to a wide range of shocks, from food price instability to climate change, which are threatening much of the progress that has been made in terms of poverty eradication and other Millennium Development Goals.

The report defines social protection as: "A specific set of actions to address the vulnerability of people’s life through social insurance, offering protection against risk and adversity throughout life; through social assistance, offering payments and in kind transfers to support and enable the poor; and through inclusion efforts that enhance the capability of the marginalised to access social insurance and assistance."

This definition points to core functions: offering mechanisms to avoid serious hardship for the poor and non-poor alike in the face of serious risks, offering means to assist the poor in their attempts to escape poverty, and improving access to both for marginalised groups. Social protection is more than mere ‘safety nets’ that can cushion the impacts of serious crises: it is part of a comprehensive approach to getting people out of poverty, allowing them not only to benefit from growth, but also to productively take part in growth.

The ERD argues that the EU has a number of advantages that can help to support country-led social protection initiatives in Africa, including its diversity of models and the valuable transition experience of the newer EU member states.

The ERD initiative -- supported by the European Commission and seven Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Sweden and the UK -- identifies seven priority areas for a future EU development agenda on social protection in Africa:
Promoting and supporting comprehensive social protection systems, starting with the African Union's social policy framework, aligning with domestic priorities, and tailoring intervention modalities to the context and needs of each country.

The priorities encompasses the need to tackle the challenge of financial affordability, including through support to domestic tax reforms and the provision of more predictable aid flows, as well as the need to promote knowledge-building and the sharing of information, including 'South-South' partnerships.

The aim of the ERD, says a briefing paper, is to enhance the EU's perspective on development issues on the basis of independent knowledge excellence, innovative policy recommendations and the building of common ground between the European research community and policy-makers. It demonstrates the commitment of the EU -- the world’s largest provider of development assistance -- to the Millennium Development Goals.

State fragility in sub-Saharan Africa was the central topic of the first edition of the ERD, which was released in October 2009. The European University Institute based in Florence is leading the research effort. As the ERD depends on a thorough consultative process with various stakeholders, preparatory consultations for the latest ERD took place in 2010, in Brussels, Florence, Paris and Dakar.

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