Africa, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

African Govts Urged to Invest in Social Protection

Busani Bafana

WINDHOEK, Oct 23 2010 (IPS) - Allocating just one percent of GDP to social protection could make a massive difference to the lives of the continent’s poorest children.

According to Jonathan Bradshaw, a professor of social policy at the University of York in the United Kingdom, African countries should invest in social protection systems. He argues that poverty has a long-term effect on children, often denying them opportunities to succeed in their adult lives.

“All countries in Europe have a system of social benefits for children,” Bradshaw told IPS on the sidelines of a regional workshop for parliamentarians held in Namibia from Oct. 20-22.

“The average spend as a portion of the GDP on cash benefits for child care is 2.3 percent. If African countries spend one percent of their GDP on child benefits, it will make a big difference in terms of alleviating poverty. But none of them are.”

Bradshaw has conducted extensive research on existing child benefit packages in East and Southern Africa. His finding is that almost all the cash benefits directed towards children are use by parents on education and health. He cited the example of South Africa where cash grants have led to greater access to and participation in school, and strengthened the health of mothers.

Other research by academic institutions and development organisations in Africa confirms that social protection in its various forms, including cash transfers to poor households, grants to support children and the elderly, national health insurance, input vouchers and fee waivers for health and education, makes a positive difference in the lives of the poor and vulnerable.

However, prioritising and implementing social protection systems often remains secondary to other priorities in national budgets.

“It is a question of affordability as governments have to make choices and fiscal space is limited. But we are not asking for very expensive programmes – well directed programmes that would cost one percent of the GDP will do the job,” Bradshaw said.

“The World Bank has been arguing that any investment in public services is likely to undermine successful growth but we know that growth has not trickled down. Now international organisations argue that the most important future step in development is the introduction of social security and particularly social protection for children.”

Namibia, is one country that has been a leader in promoting social protection since it introduced its cash transfer programme in 2004. More than 100,000 children are currently benefiting from welfare grants which have helped reduce poverty in households affected by HIV and AIDS.

Social protection systems like this, researchers argue, should be scaled up across the continent with the financial support from governments as well as the implementation of child-friendly policies. However, Africa’s budget priorities are elsewhere.

For example, statistics from the United Nations show Africa spends nearly $4 billion on military expenditure each year. Military spending in 2009 rose by 10.2 percent over the previous year, according to the latest analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The African Union estimates that corruption costs African economies more than $148 billion dollars a year, which would represent a quarter of Africa’s total GDP. Effective action to tackle corruption could free up resources for expanded social protection.

The African Union Social Affairs Commissioner, Bience Gawanas, told IPS that social protection can be used to guarantee human rights, arguing that if African countries have macroeconomic policies, they should also have macro social policies. She said her commission is lobbying to get African countries adopt policies across the board to tackle poverty and social protection was one solution.

“When people are dying of HIV and AIDS, or dying of malaria: how much does it cost our governments?” Gawana asked. “If we calculate the cost of death, surely that extra dollar they give to keep a person alive means much more. It is about priorities. But it is not a hopeless situation, if one country can show the way surely others can follow.”

South Africa has child support grants; Kenya has cash transfers for orphans and vulnerable children; Lesotho has introduced a grant for the elderly. In Malawi the government working with the World Food Programme introduced the school feeding programme and in Mozambique there is the food vouchers programme and in Zambia, a pilot cash transfer scheme for older persons caring for orphans has improved school attendance.

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