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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Social Security Not So Much a Luxury as a Necessity

Analysis by Christi van der Westhuizen

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 14 2006 (IPS) - Social protection is emerging as a policy option among governments and donors in Southern Africa, as poverty and unemployment persist despite economic growth in the region.

Authorities in Malawi, Lesotho and South Africa have embarked on cash transfer programmes to help the people most vulnerable to economic shocks, such as the elderly and children.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) argue, in turn, that safety nets to help people cope with economic hardship are not mere “nice-to-haves”, but integral to citizens’ rights and responsible governance.

Nonetheless, Stephen Devereux from the Centre for Social Protection at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom (UK) notes that the region has some way to go on this matter. The “principles of predictability of transfers and a right to employment that can be claimed from the state” are still mostly unknown in Southern Africa, he says.

International NGOs and donors largely determine the design, funding and implementation of social security cash transfers. However, their support for transfers may prove cyclical, or simply a passing fashion – something which casts doubt over the sustainability of these strategies.

NGOs also emphasise that cash transfers are a transitional mechanism which should be accompanied by efforts to improve the underlying conditions which perpetuate poverty.

It could be said that issue of social security has been neglected in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the Southern African Development Community’s Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan.

Both programmes emphasise growth, but do not suggest policies to enable poor people to bounce back when they are affected by the possible social consequences of economic liberalisation, such as unemployment.

The eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have helped set the stage for a re-examination of priorities, however.

Abi Masefield, head of policy at the humanitarian organisation Plan, in the UK, told IPS that the first MDG, on the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, should not be seen as separate from the attainment of the other MDGs but as a precondition.

For example, providing a basic child support grant can make it easier for women to escape domestic violence and stand up for themselves – key to realising the MDG on gender equality. The same goes for improving nutrition and enhancing children’s access to education (MDG two focuses on achieving universal primary education).

Policy makers are coming to view social protection as an investment in chronically poor people’s ability to climb out of poverty and contribute to a more productive society, says Masefield.

According to Devereux, there has been a shift away from the charity model towards one that proclaims social protection as a right of citizenship.

India and Brazil are also moving in this direction. In India, the Employment Guarantee Scheme led to a national campaign on the right to work. It resulted in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005, which assures every rural household of 100 days of employment at the minimum wage.

Brazil has developed a conditional cash transfer system which encompasses a school grant, a food grant and a cooking gas grant which have all been combined in the “Bolsa Família” (family grant) programme. This is aimed at the social inclusion and support of vulnerable families, says Antonio de Oliveira from Brazil’s Ministry of Social Sevelopment and Fighting Hunger.

The focus of the Bolsa Família is on breaking the intergenerational perpetuation of poverty through education and health support. Someone classified as living in extreme poverty (a person who earns under 30 dollars per month) receives 32.5 dollars, while someone who is considered poor receives upwards of seven dollars. To date, just over 11 million people are benefiting at a cost of 2.85 billion dollars, or 0.3 percent of Brazil’s annual gross domestic product.

Regarding affordability, Rebecca Holmes from the UK’s Overseas Development Institute emphasises that the issue is rather one of political will. After all, governments decide what they spend their budgets on.

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