A universal challenge: Social security for the world

Only one in five people worldwide enjoys adequate social security coverage. Faced with this stark reality, the ILO has initiated a new global campaign to encourage and assist member States to extend social security to all of their citizens. The Global Campaign on Social Security and Coverage for All, reflects a global consensus among governments, employers and workers to take up this challenge. In this report, World of Work outlines this new campaign.

GENEVA - Social security protection is regarded by the UN as a basic human right. But astonishingly few people actually enjoy that right.

According to the ILO, 80 per cent of the world's population does not have an adequate level of social security coverage (see definition, p. 14). More than half the world's population lacks any type of protection at all. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the number of people with access to even the most rudimentary protection is estimated to be less than 10 per cent.

Two years ago, the International Labour Conference (ILC) laid the foundation for a sustained ILO effort to address this challenge, by calling for a major campaign to promote the extension of social security coverage. During the 91st ILC in June, the Global Campaign on Social Security and Coverage for All, was officially launched by ILO Director-General Juan Somavia in the company of the incoming Governing Body Chairman, Ambassador H.E. Eui-Yong Chung, and incoming Vice-Chairpersons, Sir Leroy Trotman and Daniel Funes de Rioja.

"Social security systems contribute not only to human security, dignity, equity and social justice, but also provide a foundation for political inclusion, empowerment and the development of democracy," said Somavia. "Well-designed social security systems improve economic performance and thus contribute to the comparative advantage of countries on global markets. We have the will, and now must find the way, to provide more people with the social benefits needed to survive and prosper."

The campaign reflects a global consensus on the part of governments and employers' and workers' organizations to extend security coverage to all working people, particularly in the informal economy, and raise awareness worldwide about the role of social security in economic and social development. The campaign will seek to develop a broad partnership involving international organizations, donor countries, social security institutions and civil society organizations.

It is based on ILC-defined principles and approaches, which emphasize that there is no single correct model of social security, and that priority should be given to policies and initiatives which can bring social security to those who are not covered by existing systems. Social security should also promote, and be based on, the principle of gender equality. Finally, each country should determine a national strategy for working towards social security for all.

People without social security coverage are usually found in the informal economy in developing countries, rather than in the formal sector. Even in developing countries with high economic growth, increasing numbers of workers - most often women - have less than secure employment, such as casual labour, home work and self-employment, lacking social security coverage.

Gender equality and the extension of social security

The 2001 International Labour Conference emphasized that social security should promote and be based upon the principle of gender equality - not only with regard to equal treatment for men and women in the same or similar situations, but also concerning measures to ensure equitable outcomes for women. For example, many societies benefit greatly from unpaid care work, particularly that which women provide to children, aging parents and infirm family members. Yet, with regard to social security, these family caregivers are often disadvantaged later in life simply because their work occurred in the home and not as paid employment. The ILC also noted that measures to improve access to employment will help women gain social security benefits in their own right, rather than as dependents.

This has an enormous impact on their lives and on work itself. What little earning power the impoverished have is further suppressed by marginalization and lack of support systems - particularly when they are unable to work because of age, illness or disability.

It was once assumed that an increasing proportion of the labour force in developing countries would end up in formal-sector employment covered by social security. However, experience has shown that the growing incidence of informal work has led to stagnant or declining rates of coverage. The most vulnerable groups outside the labour force are people with disabilities and old people who cannot count on family support, and who have not been able to make provisions for their own pensions.

Despite the widespread lack of coverage, campaign officials say a number of middle-income countries have successfully expanded coverage of their social security systems in recent years. For example, Costa Rica has achieved full health coverage through a combination of health insurance and free access to public health services. India's National Old-Age Pension Scheme, financed by central and state resources, reaches one fourth of all elderly about half of pensioners who live in poverty. And, in Brazil, social assistance pensions lift about 14 million people out of extreme poverty.

Ambassador Chung noted that a newly introduced social security scheme helped his country, the Republic of Korea, adjust more smoothly to the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. In particular, a newly introduced unemployment insurance program helped the country cope with a quadrupling of the jobless rate.

"Our example shows that social security is neither a luxury nor a burden on the government," said Chung. "On the contrary, it contributes to productivity, social cohesion and acts as a lubricant for the economy in times of crisis or great change. In the high-paced era of globalization, these are the building blocks of sustainable economic and social development."

The Global Campaign seeks to address the challenge of helping middle-income countries continue their progress, while helping least developed countries determine what types of schemes are best suited to extend coverage. The campaign will seek to leverage the support of the ILO tripartite constituents - as well as other organizations - to initiate and sustain efforts to help countries develop and expand social security systems through a process of experimentation and social dialogue.

As a key element of the campaign, the ILO is testing new approaches to open up access and monitoring initiatives by its member States to extend coverage. Moreover, it is seeking to apply its long experience in promoting social dialogue and tripartite involvement to address the special challenges of expanding social security in countries where coverage is weak and participation in the informal economy is high. Upcoming projects include:

  • An initiative focusing on three countries - Honduras, Mali and Sri Lanka - where the ILO will promote approaches based on social dialogue between governments and workers' and employers' groups to develop plans for implementing social security reforms aimed at extending social security coverage.
  • A project aimed at Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa - Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Sao Tome & Principe - which is designed to help them better understand which groups of people are excluded from their social security systems, and devise ways to bring them under full coverage.
  • A project aimed at developing a better understanding of community-based social security plans which have emerged in developing countries, to devise ways to support them and enable them to grow, and to determine their potential for becoming part of wider, integrated national plans. This project - carried out by the ILO STEP programme - targets poor and excluded groups in the informal economy, as well as low-income formal-economy workers whose social security coverage does not meet their needs.
  • An initiative, in cooperation with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), to better understand and attempt to reverse the decline in health-care coverage in Latin American and Caribbean countries, where about 140 million people do not have access to health services.