Zimbabwe is heading for general elections in 2023 amid an ongoing macroeconomic crisis. In the decade that began in 2001, the state-run economy began to show signs of strain. Unemployment has reached 85%. Inflation, which was 79,000,000% in 2008, has come down but has increased over the past two years. It is still among the highest in the world.
The economic crisis has increased household vulnerability and the need for social protection to prevent hunger among poor households, complement the risk mitigation mechanisms of informal workers and improve access to social services such as education, health and water.
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It is very unlikely that the formal economy will soon reverse the trend to create formal jobs, essential to the stability of household incomes, and reduce the need to support food insecure households.
In the last presidential election of 2018, several presidential candidates promised to provide social protection to citizens.
The ruling Zanu-PF party has promised to create safety nets and improve access to health and education services. Safety nets are also called social assistance and typically include cash and food transfers, public works, subsidies, and fee waivers for education and health.
The Zanu-PF government’s safety net program includes cash transfers to 52,049 households, public monthly maintenance allowances in the form of food and/or cash to 6,688 households, and paltry subsidies for living expenses. tuition and examination fees for disadvantaged students.
The main opposition party, MDC-Alliance (now Citizens’ Coalition for Change), has promised to strengthen social protection and reform the National Social Security Authority. The terms “social protection” and “social security” are used interchangeably and generally include social assistance and social insurance measures.
Little-known opposition parties also made pledges. For example, the People’s Rainbow Coalition pledged to provide social security, and the Alliance for the People’s Agenda pledged to provide social programs such as support for education and health care.
As Zimbabwe heads towards the 2023 presidential elections, which are due to be held on April 23, 2023, new or recycled promises will be made to voters.
Voters must judge candidates on the merits of their promises to improve the reach of cash and food transfers to poor households, extend social insurance coverage to informal workers and facilitate access to education, health and water for all citizens.
What is in place
I have researched social protection in Zimbabwe and beyond for the past decade. There are a few key social protection measures to consider. Among them are social insurances, such as retirement, sickness, maternity and unemployment benefits. These depend on contributions from workers in the formal economy and their employers.
The coverage of the Harmonized Social Cash Transfers program is limited to 52,049 households. Thus, it only covers 6% of food insecure households. But more than four million Zimbabweans, out of a population of 15 million, are food insecure.
The flagship social assistance program pays households between US$20 and US$50 every two months, depending on household size.
Since its inception in 2011, the program has covered less than 20 districts. There are 59 districts in Zimbabwe and all of them have food insecure households.
Then there is social insurance which covers pensions and workers’ compensation. But this does not cover the risks faced by most workers as it only applies to formal employment. Only 15% of Zimbabweans are employed in the formal economy while 85% work in the informal economy.
Read more: Perspectives from Zimbabwe on how to link the formal and informal economies
Many informal workers create their own risk mitigation mechanisms such as funeral societies or take out funeral insurance policies to cover funeral costs, which can be as high as their annual income.
Another cost that could be covered by social protection is that of school fees. According to the Zimbabwe National Vulnerability Assessment Committee 2020 report, 50.3% of school-aged children were expelled from school in the first term of 2020 because they could not pay tuition.
The report also notes that 75% of all rural residents with chronic conditions miss their medications because they cannot afford them.
In the short term, social protection should focus on fee waivers to improve access to education and health services for all citizens. In the medium term, all these essential social services must be brought within acceptable travel distances.
Lessons from elsewhere
A number of countries in the Southern African Development Community region have national social cash transfers for all vulnerable people in a certain demographic group. For example, in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa, the elderly receive an old age allowance.
Some governments in Africa are supplementing risk mitigation mechanisms for informal workers. For example, the Rwandan government adds a matching contribution plus life and funeral insurance policies on top of the contributions that informal workers pay for their retirement.
In Ghana, the government contributes 5% to the new national pension scheme, which includes informal workers.
Free access to education has had a positive impact on school enrollment in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda. There are fee waivers for health care in countries like Eswatini and Burundi.
It is important to address two issues when it comes to social protection in Zimbabwe.
The first is the persistent view that social protection creates a dependency syndrome – not just in Zimbabwe, but across Africa. This myth has been shattered by scientific evidence showing that cash transfers do not reduce the number of people looking for work.
The second is whether the state can afford to finance the extension of social protection to all food-insecure households.
In a constrained macroeconomic environment like that of Zimbabwe, financing social protection among other competing needs is more a matter of budgetary priorities than the search for new revenues.
Where unemployment and food insecurity are high, it is socially and legally justified for the poor to depend on welfare, as it is their right, for which the government must be held accountable.