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Access to social protection: a springboard for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

What is social protection?

Social protection, or social security, is a set of policies and programs designed to reduce and prevent poverty and vulnerability across the life cycle (ILO, World Social Protection Report 2017–19, p.2).

Social protection is a universal human right which is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 22) and several other international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - ICESCR (Article 9 and 10.2), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination – ICERD (Article 5), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women -CEDAW (Article 11), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child – CRC (Articles 26, 18.2, and 20).

What is access to social protection?

The fact that social protection has been recognized as a human right by key international human rights treaties does not guarantee its implementation by all state parties. It is only by improving the access to social protection for all people that its full benefits can be universally realized.

“Access to social protection” can be defined as the ability of people to seek and obtain a remedy through social protection systems in the nine main areas identified by the International Labour Organization (ILO), namely, child and family benefits, maternity protection, unemployment support, employment injury benefits, sickness benefits, health protection, old-age benefits, disability benefits and survivors’ benefits (ILO, 2017).

Social protection systems address all these nine areas by a mix of contributory schemes (social insurance) and non-contributory tax-financed benefits, including social assistance (ILO, 2017).

What are Social Protection Floors?

The International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Social Protection Floors Recommendation (No. 202) of 2012 calls for reducing the gaps in social protection practices at national, regional and global levels through nationally defined floors (to suit national circumstances and levels of development) that are based on a set of human rights standards (ILO, 2012).

Social protection to create an enabling environment for empowering the poor

Several different conceptual approaches to defining social protection, including those mentioned below, suggest that social protection has evolved over time from its traditional functions of safety and poverty alleviation to encompass a broader function of economic and legal empowerment of the poor and disadvantaged populations.

Social protection consists of policies and programs designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability by promoting efficient labour markets, reducing people's exposure to risks, and enhancing their capacity to manage economic and social risks, such as unemployment, exclusion, sickness, disability and old age (World Bank, 2001).

Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler (2004) conceive social protection as “all initiatives that provide cash or food transfers to the poor; protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks; and enhance the social status and rights of the excluded and marginalized”. This definition provides a commonly used conceptual framework, which describes four functions social protection:

  • Protection: protecting people against the consequences of poverty by providing relief in the form of income benefits, state pensions, etc

  • Prevention: preventing people from falling into poverty following a shock; averting deprivation (e.g. savings clubs, social insurance)

  • Promotion: promoting people out of poverty by enhancing incomes and capabilities (e.g. inputs)

  • Transformation: promoting social equity and inclusion, empowerment and rights by addressing structural causes of poverty and inequality.

The transformative element positions social protection not just to alleviate poverty but to transform lives, through pursuing policies that rebalance the unequal power relations which cause vulnerabilities.

As stated in the preamble to ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation (No. 202) of 2012, “… social security is an investment in people that empowers them to adjust to changes in the economy and in the labour market, …”.

According to de la O Campos (2015), social protection creates an enabling environment for promoting the economic empowerment of the poor.

Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and then transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes (World Bank,, 2001. World Development Report 2000-2001 Attacking Poverty. Washington, DC).

Empowerment of people including the poor and vulnerable groups is a human rights-based multi-dimensional (i.e. legal, economic, technological, etc) approach to development which is central to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The role of social protection in “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”

As noted in the 2030 Agenda’s preamble “Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development ...”.

The Agenda further states that the Agenda itself and the Sustainable Development Goals and targets, including the means of implementation, are universal, indivisible and interlinked (paragraph 71), and that “no one will be left behind” when Member States embark on this great collective journey.

Social protection plays a key role in meeting this “greatest global challenge of eradicating poverty” and "leaving no one behind" by addressing the nine key areas mentioned above (under What is access to social protection?) and thereby contributing to realize the universal human right to social security for all. Social protection policies are vital elements of national development strategies that support inclusive and sustainable growth by raising household incomes, fostering productivity and human development, boosting domestic demand, facilitating structural transformation of the economy and promoting decent work.

The primacy of a human rights-based approach (HRBA) in implementing social protection programs towards achieving the SDGs

What is an HRBA?

According to the UN Practitioners’ Portal on Human Rights Based Approaches to Programming “A human rights-based approach is a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. […] Under a human rights-based approach, the plans, policies and processes of development are anchored in a system of rights and corresponding obligations established by international law. This helps to promote the sustainability of development work, empowering people themselves— especially the most marginalized—to participate in policy formulation and hold accountable those who have a duty to act.

The United Nations Development Group (UNDG), in 2003, adopted the UN Statement of Common Understanding on Human Rights-Based Approaches to Development Cooperation and Programming. By adopting this Statement of Common Understanding, it was intended to ensure that a consistent human rights-based approach (HRBA) to common programming processes would be applied by UN agencies, funds and programs at global, regional and country levels (HRBA Portal).

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is guided by the Charter of the United Nations, i.e. the foundational document of the UN, which states, among other things, that “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all” is a purpose of the United Nations (Article 1.3). The Agenda further states that it is grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties (paragraph 10). Each SDG and target corresponds with either one or more provisions of international human rights treaties. This ‘human rights foundation’ of the SDGs is well elaborated in the Human Rights Guide to the Sustainable Development Goals developed by the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

Both human rights and social protection have emerged as key elements in discussions on poverty reduction in the post-2015 development agenda. The ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation of 2012 calls for reducing the gaps at national, regional and global levels through nationally defined social protection floors that are based on a set of human rights standards (ILO, 2012).

​Social protection, being a universal human right, creates the enabling environment for economic (and legal) empowerment of the poor and vulnerable groups which is a well-established human rights-based approach to development. The human rights anchorage of social protection and SDGs paves the way for policy makers and development practitioners to adopt a human rights-based approach in implementing social protection policies and programs towards realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes social protection systems as a key enabler of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and states that “All people must enjoy a basic standard of living, including through social protection systems” (paragraph 24). This recognition is affirmed by the inclusion of several Goals, targets and indicators in the 2030 Agenda as appended below.

In such in a rights-based context, the role of social protection systems as a universal means of implementing the SDGs, would amount to be a springboard for achieving the Goals.


Goal 1 (End poverty in all its forms everywhere)

Target 3:Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable.

Indicator 1.3.1: Proportion of population covered by social protection floors/systems, by sex, distinguishing children, unemployed persons, older persons, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, newborns, work-injury victims and the poor and the vulnerable.

Goal 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages)

Target 8: Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.

Goal 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls)

Target 4: Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.

Goal 10 (Reduce inequality within and among countries)

Target 4: Adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality.

Indicator 10.4.1: Labour share of GDP, comprising wages and social protection transfers.

[Photo credit: Darjeeling Tea Garden worker. By Benoy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

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