Social Security Policy Support (SSPS) Programme

An initiative of the Cabinet Division and the General Economics Division (GED), Bangladesh Planning Commission, Government of Bangladesh

A Review of Social Protection in South Asia

This paper provides an overview of social protection strategies in the South Asian context, focusing on Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka which together account for over 95% of the region’s population. It discusses the relationship between economic growth and social development in these countries and their past efforts to deal with poverty and vulnerability. It reviews some of the key interventions in the field of social protection within the different countries and draws out a number of issues that bear on the future evolution of these strategies.

First, however, it is important to clarify what is included under social protection in this paper. The challenge is to delineate social protection in ways that reflect local realities and that distinguish it from the broader but related concepts of poverty reduction and social development. As an ADB report that attempts to do this points out, the terminology of social protection is relatively new within the international development community and has not passed into common currency in policy discourse in the Asian context. Country level workshops carried out by ADB found that the most frequently used terms relating to social protection within the region are social security, social assistance, social safety nets and social welfare targeted to key vulnerable groups such as children with special needs, the elderly, under/unemployed, sick and disabled people and poor households. The case of microfinance posed a particular challenge in this discussion as it was not clear whether it should fall under the rubric of social protection or loan-based job creation. However, the majority of experts consulted agreed that it represented one of the most prevalent forms of assistance to poor people, particularly women, in a number of countries. It was decided that the ADB would include microfinance programmes in its definition of social protection interventions, but only if they were linked to micro-insurance (which was generally not the case) or if they promoted community self-help and other social protection policies.

The terminology of social security and social assistance captures the extremely dualistic structure that has evolved in most of South Asian countries. Formal social security provision, influenced by the colonial legacy, by trade union pressure and by ILO conventions, largely benefits the minority of the workforce employed in public and large scale private enterprise. For the destitute and socially handicapped at the other end of the economic spectrum, those who are considered unable to fend for themselves, the state has generally provided social assistance/ social welfare. For the vast majority of waged and self employed workers in the informal sector, the ‘working poor’, who fell between these two categories, there was neither social security nor social assistance Instead, there were various poverty reduction programmes intended to promote livelihoods and enhance capabilities. The assumption was that such strategies for poverty reduction would make social security both more affordable in the long run and less intensely crucial (Dreze and Sen).

There has been renewed interest in the 1990s in the idea of social security within the region as in the rest of the world. It was becoming clear that the risks and insecurities generated by globalisation necessitated greater attention to social protection. It had also become evident that the informal sector was not going to  wither away with development; on the contrary, the pursuit of flexible markets in the context of globalisation was both expanding informal work and giving rise to new forms of informality within the formal economy. However, debates about the provision of social security in the South Asian context are also strongly influenced by an awareness of the constraints imposed by the nature of their economies and the inapplicability of the formal social security systems of more industrialised countries. These were summarised by Guhan (1995):

• Credit and insurance markets are underdeveloped, restricting the scope for private insurance.

• The scope for social insurance is limited because the labour market is characterised by high proportions of self-employment and unstable and irregular wage employment.

• Rural populations were spatially scattered, occupationally diffuse and difficult to reach administratively.

• High occupational diversity and employment instability also characterised the urban informal sector.

• The problem of poverty was not open unemployment, the focus of formal security systems but irregular and informal employment in diverse activities with low returns.

A great deal of the discussion about social protection in the South Asian context has been framed by an influential contribution by Dreze and Sen (1991) which distinguished between ‘protection’ and ‘promotion’ as different aspects of social security. While protection was concerned with preventing declines in living standards in general, and basic conditions of living in particular, promotion was concerned with the broader goal of poverty eradication. Their view was that the major thrust of social security policy in developing countries had to be in the field of promotional measures because of the sheer scale of the problem of poverty and also because success on the promotional front would make social protection both more affordable as well as less intensely crucial.

An alternative reading of policy options was provided by Guhan. He recognised the importance of promotional measures in a context of widespread poverty, but was concerned that Dreze and Sen confined their discussion of protective measures to the ‘prevention’ of declines in living standards in extraordinary situations like famine. This overlooked both the need for basic entitlements for those in chronic poverty as well as for protection against ‘ordinary’ threats to livelihoods and living standards of poor people (eg. sickness, old age, disability and other forms of idiosyncratic risk). As Kannan suggested, social protection in developing country contexts had to deal with both deficits in basic needs (basic social security) and protection in times of adversity (contingent social security). These discussions have therefore given rise to a number of different elements in social protection strategies in the South Asian context: social provision to meet basic needs deficits among the poorest sections of the population; preventive measures in the face of contingencies and promotional measures to provide trajectories out of poverty.



Implementation of National Social Security Strategy (NSSS)

View Document Record Notes of Sreemangal Workshop The workshop on Implementation...

NSSS Action Plan II (2021-26) – An Overview

Shock Responsive Social Protection Model in Urban Settings of Bangladesh

View Document Bangladesh, one of the world's most densely populated...