Building a New Welfare State

All of a sudden, the coronacrisis made it crystal clear: all people, all countries need a good system of health care! What has been obvious for some all the time, now becomes the new truth for all those who thought social protection was something of the past, or something only rich countries could afford thanks to their profits from colonisation …

The real truth is that all people, everywhere and in all times have exactly the same basic needs: health care, water, clean air, shelter, food and clothing, education… In what way this will be provided will differ from people to people and from country to country. But in all cases the systems that are put into place should be able to answer the real needs and demands of the people concerned. It also means that for psychological or spiritual needs, the local chaman, marabou, herbalist or other witch doctor can certainly help, but professional health care is needed to cure people from viruses and other illnesses.

It is therefore important to know just what is on offer. What different possibilities exist? What ideology to follow? These are not easy choices because much will depend on the government in place, on the available resources and on the strength of the social movements fighting for social justice.

I would like to briefly distinguish three possible options:

Best known are the recipes promoted by the World Bank. Unsurprisingly, they are neoliberal, which means they basically are promoting markets, even if, according to the latest proposals, some responsibility is given to the State. In fact, public authorities are requested to put private markets into place for health as well as for pensions, maternity or employment policies. If some kind of subsidy can be accepted to make services as well as medicines or vaccines affordable, it should never hinder market competition. Health care and social protection are mainly put into place in order to have markets function properly. World Bank policies are mainly targeted to the poor. They allow to keep existing neoliberal policies in other sectors unchanged.

A second option is the one promoted by the International Labour Organisation and its Social Protection Floors. This is a comprehensive programme that encourages governments to put into place systems of social protection that even go further than the minimal floors and respect the 1951 international convention on minimal standards for social security. It does not exclude privatisations, nor does it impose policies going beyond the fixed parameters. But contrary to neoliberal ideology, its objective is clearly to effectively protect people. The ILO is in favour of universal policies, though some doubts exist as to the exact meaning of the concept in its various documents.

A third option is the one Global Social Justice is promoting. We prefer public health care and comprehensive social protection systems that go beyond the traditional elements of social security with income guarantees to also look at basic necessities such as water or decent housing. The current coronacrisis made it crystal clear that housing is indeed a health concern, in the same way as clean air and healthy food. We also want social policies to respond to the real needs and demands of people, which is made possible with local communities being involved in the definition, implementation and monitoring of policies. That is why we speak of social commons.

In brief, we are opposed to World Bank policies that target the poor and promote private markets. In fact, its social protection follows an insurance logic and is at the service of markets. We do support the ILO and its social protection floors, which are more comprehensive, can be redistributive and claim to be universal, though they do not exclude privatisation. Global Social Justice fully supports public social protection systems, with a link to water, housing and environmental policies. We promote universal policies in a democratic and participatory context. That is why we promote social commons. Our social protection is geared towards social justice.

These are, in a nutshell, the main options with, obviously, many solutions in between. But for all those who just now discover the importance of social protection, it is useful to first of all look at the objectives: markets, protection of people or social justice? Public or private? Universal or targeted? Democratic and participatory? It all depends on what you want to achieve.

For Global Social Justice, social protection is not just a corrective mechanism for a failed economic system. We do not have to fight poverty but to prevent poverty. Social protection should be a tool for systemic change. It can be a basic stepping stone for helping people and societies and combining social and environmental justice.

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. 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, and secondly to use these citizen’s rights to empower themselves and act as a counter hegemonic power against capitalism.


Our task now is to build the new welfare state, geared towards social and environmental justice in order to ensure the sustainability of life, nature, people and societies.