Social Protection Floors: The Case for going Beyond

End of April 2018 The Economist published a special report on universal health care and put the topic on its cover. We should welcome this ‘social turn’ but we should also reflect very seriously on what is happening and why.

Also in spring 2018, José Antonio Ocampo and Joseph Stiglitz, two famous economists, published a book on ‘Re-visiting the Welfare State’ with a purely economic perspective on social policies.

What this means and confirms is that for almost forty years now, right-wing and neoliberal forces have been dominating and shaping the discourse – and consequently the practice – on social policies. They do not talk about social justice, obviously, since justice is far away from their objectives, but they have been dominating and shaping the new thinking on poverty, social protection, health and education.The tragedy in all this is that the left has grossly abandoned its social ambition. For the radical left, social protection is counter-revolutionary and something for dummies and sissies. After the revolution, social justice will fall out of the sky. The moderate left is happy with the existing international initiatives. It means that this once high priority topic for all progressive forces is being neglected. We are now paying the price for this. Social protection has been taken out of our hands.There are good arguments then for looking more closely at what we have and what we need, and to take back control. Doing this, we should not look back at the past, but have to look at the future, not in order to reform the welfare states, but to re-create them and make them fit for the citizens and societies of the 21st century.

Beyond Social Protection Floors

I highly value the different proposals and initiatives that have been taken these past years, such as, apart from the Social Protection Floors (SPFs), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR). If these were really made into reality, it would be a tremendous progress for the whole world population. There can be no doubt about my support for all these initiatives, especially since Member States of the ILO unanimously adopted the SPFs and those of the United Nations (UN) are formally committed to achieve the SDGs.

What I do think is that there is also a need to go beyond them, not simply because they are not sufficient, but because we should reflect on what the objectives of social protection are and, most of all, on the kind of world we want to live in. The ILO itself considers the SPFs to be a ‘fundamental element of national social security systems’ (art. 1a). We need a long term horizon with an ambitious goal, creating hope for getting out of the unsustainable competitive world order we are living in. Saying this, many people will spontaneously and rightly think of climate justice and biodiversity which are indeed as important as social justice for the sustainability of life. But there is so much more to think of if we really want to achieve a better world for all.

In this article, I would like to expand on the reasons for going beyond the social protection floors. In a second article, I would like to point to the many connections between social protection and other sectors and policies and what our objectives should be – social justice and systemic change – while in a third article, I would like to explain the strategies we might want to develop.



Essential goods

Social Protection Floors are based on the definition of social security as it is mentioned in ILO’s convention of 1952 on the minimum standards of social security.[1] But for each element it adds the qualification of ‘essential’, ‘minimum’ or ‘basic’, in other words, it promises nothing more than what can be considered to be a minimum. How far does ‘essential health care’ go? Does it include basic surgery? Does it include cancer or diabetes therapy? And how to ethically put the limits to what is covered and what is not? Also, how far does a basic income security for older, unemployed, or disabled persons reach? Will it be enough for a decent living? Knowing that even wages are often not enough to get out of poverty, this will most probably not be the case in many countries.

We should remember that traditional welfare states were not meant to just give people a basic income for survival, but to allow them to compensate for the loss of labour income. Unemployment and sickness benefits, e.g., were close to the (temporarily) lost wage. The objective was to allow people to preserve a decent standard of living. The ILO as well refers in its recommendation of 2012 to the International Convention on minimum standards of social security and thus also considers the importance of going beyond the current SPFs.

If we really want all human beings to have a life in dignity, it will be necessary, then, to go beyond these minimum levels and strive for a more holistic approach.


Apart from the access to ‘essential health care’ all other elements of the SPFs refer to a ‘basic income’ in different cases where persons are not or cannot participate in the labour market. Now this is fine, since income is indeed a basic condition for getting out of poverty and live a life in dignity. However, recognizing the income dimension of poverty cannot be enough. In the case of children, it is mentioned that the basic income should give access to nutrition, education, care, etc. (art. 5b). However, public services are not mentioned. Health care and education might as well come from private as from public sources. And, as is already the case in many countries today, the ‘basic income’ might come down to a cash transfer that is just enough to pay for privatised services which, in the past were provided by public authorities and then were given to the market and only available for high user fees. In other words, though this was certainly not the objective of the ILO, the basic income/cash transfer can be an indirect way to subsidize the corporations offering these services. Giving a guaranteed income to poor people is absolutely necessary but it should help to live a decent life and not replace the necessary universal public services.


Many dramatic data on global income inequality have been published these past years and the moral arguments for the redistribution of income cannot be laughed away anymore. This certainly is positive and the various research papers from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) on taxes and inequality show that the topic is finally making its way to the international agenda.

However, social protection is about so much more than the redistribution of income. First of all, it should be reminded that the traditional welfare states of Western Europe and some other countries were not about redistribution – that is where tax systems are made for – but about collective insurance and solidarity systems. The specific characteristic of these systems was that they covered the whole of society, all workers contributing to a centralised fund which was spending according to the needs of the population for health, pensions, disability, etc. This was, to a certain extent, what constituted society, the structural solidarity that linked all people to all other people within national borders. It included universal public services such as health and education but also public transport, postal services, water and electricity, etc. There is a great diversity in public services and different welfare benefits but it should be noted that they were never about redistribution even if, in some cases, that might have been a consequence. Redistribution is basically a matter for income taxes. Welfare states – social protection – are about ensuring structural and horizontal social solidarity, based on collective insurances.

In a neoliberal philosophy however, benefits to be paid by public authorities are minimal and are indeed          a matter of redistribution of incomes. Insurances are for markets and those who want more than the minimum on offer, can buy what they want or need on the market. Income taxes should be kept as low as possible.

This point is very important, now that many services are being privatised or benefits are targeted to the poor. What is lost is not only the benefits of universal services and benefits themselves, but the structural solidarity as a foundation for society, the collective effort of all at the service of all. If we want to definitely get rid of ethnicity or faith-based communities, this structural solidarity is crucial for the flourishing of inclusive and diverse societies.


This brings us to the delicate point of universalism. The SPFs do mention social protection should be universal (point 3), but is somewhat contradictory in also saying it is for those ‘in need’ (pt 4). The World Bank from its side continues to promote targeted interventions in favour of the poor. Both organisations have published in 2015 a joint statement in favour of universal social protection, though it does not seem the World Bank has changed its practices yet.

What is clear however is that policies in favour of the poor are not enough. If well implemented they might indeed help people to be lifted out of poverty, but they do not stop the creation of poverty. That, again, is the big advantage of welfare states with labour rights and public services: they stop the impoverishment processes and prevent poverty. This is the main argument in favour of universal policies, next to the generally admitted point that policies for the poor rapidly become poor policies. It is difficult indeed to convince middle classes and the rich to pay for policies they themselves do not benefit from.

The objectives

As was mentioned already, basic social protection mechanisms do not exclude privatisations or austerity policies. On the contrary, they even might facilitate them. Compared to a situation in which there is austerity and no social protection – unfortunately the case in too many countries – the SPF offer some help and do constitute to a certain extent a correction mechanism to a brutal economic system. But they totally remain within that system and do not have the ambition to change it.

This is one of the reasons so many progressive people reject them since they fear they mainly help poor people to survive and prevent them from rebelling and overthrowing the system.

Many voices have been raised these past years in favour of ‘transformative social protection’ and even if, again, many different meanings are attributed to the concept, it might mean that social protection mechanisms contribute to system change, that is help to fight climate change as well as transforming the social, political and economic setup of the world.

In whatever way one looks at it, the objective of social protection should be what it says: to protect people. Against what? Against the vagaries of markets, of the climate and of life. Saying this already indicates the programme should be very extensive. Social protection certainly should not be a ‘productive factor’, a mechanism in favour of growth and of markets. That is what too often one reads in documents of the World Bank and the European Commission. The ILO also states in several preparatory documents to the SPFs, that social protection can favour the economy. While this is certainly true, it can and should never be its major objective.

Tentative conclusion

As Claus Offe rightly said, capitalism does not want any social protection, while at the same time it knows that it cannot survive without it.[2] The social protection that is on the international agenda today is precisely the part that capitalism wants to survive. It is the new paradigm that has been silently introduced, in North and South.

Our answer should be to reclaim the part that we want in order to protect individuals and societies. Welfare states emerged at the end of the 19th century and fully developed after the second world war. It was about building a counter power, it was a resource, first to give workers collective property and hence citizenship[3][4], and secondly to use these citizen’s rights to empower themselves and act as a counter hegemonic power against capitalism. The first mechanisms of workers’ solidarity were managed by themselves, later, in Western Europe, employers joined the game. This is the basic philosophy of co-management, democracy, and participation we should get back to.

What happened these past decades is that many reforms were introduced to take into account the changes in societies and the economy in the 21st century, but each time, in every, country, the basic protection of people was hollowed out instead of strengthened. Social protection had to be made compatible with neoliberalism. It is time to reclaim what has been taken away, full economic and social rights, universal public services and labour rights.

Social protection still has an enormous potential for contributing to social, economic and political change, though it depends on many conditions and implies a careful and consistent strategy, democracy and participation. The SPFs can indeed be a good starting point, but we must go beyond.

Social protection is a human right, as articles 22 and 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human rights explain, and as has been confirmed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is an individual right but also a collective right, and social protection systems can not only protect individuals but also societies.

More is needed. If we want a better world to live in, we also need to look at the links between climate justice and social justice as has been emphasized already, though a reversal of the traditional reasoning on this is more than welcome. Transition measures not only have to take into account social equity, but social policies can be designed in such a way that they promote environmental sustainability. There are also connections with other sectors that have to be examined in order to see how to better organize the necessary social struggle for social and environmental justice.

This is what I will do in the next article, before concluding with some reflections on the strategies that are needed.

[1] In this article I use ‘social security’ for the nine elements of medical care and several benefits included in the ILO Convention of 1952, and ‘social protection’ for a broader system of economic and social rights included in what is called ‘welfare states’. Social justice is the broad and general concept that goes well beyond social policies.

[2] Claus Offe, Contradictions of the Welfare State, ed. John Keane, London: Hutchinson, 1984.

[3] Castel, R., Les métamorphoses de la question sociale. Une chronique su salariat, Paris, Fayard, 1995.




Francine Mestrum – Global Social Justice –