Universal social protection in Asia is within reach – if we have the will – The Diplomat
Debate | Opinion
The global community could reduce poverty in Asia with just a click. We have the numbers to prove it.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the often-noted barriers to building strong social protection systems – lack of funding, administrative burdens, etc. – can be overcome with sufficient political will.
Many countries, including in Asia, have taken extraordinary steps to fund and strengthen their social protection systems in response to the pandemic. While most of these programs have unfortunately been short-lived (with an average duration of just 4.5 months), the pandemic has proven that when social protection is prioritized, seemingly insurmountable obstacles can and will be removed. .
The same goes for the Global Fund for Social Protection: the idea of a dedicated transformative fund that would see the global community cooperatively support the financing of minimum levels of social protection in countries that lack the resources to do it themselves.
Although the idea of the Fund was widely welcomed, a significant cohort predictably found it unrealistic and unworkable given its perceived “costs”.
Now, new research published by the United Nations University – MERIT has exposed, for the first time, how financing universal social protection for all would in fact be possible at relatively low cost, with hugely positive impacts on reduction of poverty and inequality.
In Nepal, visited by the UN Special Rapporteur in December 2021, 50.8% of the country lives in poverty, but only 17% of the population is covered by at least one social benefit. The new research shows that if the country provided 10 years of universal child, maternity, disability, unemployment and old-age benefits, as well as access to essential health care, poverty in Nepal would be reduced by 64%.
To revive these benefit programs, the Global Fund is expected to provide Nepal with $5.5 billion over a 10-year period. These resources could be offset by Nepal, raising taxes to the regional average, after only five years. And by the end of the 10 years, with the well-established social protection programs, the Fund could reduce, with Nepal covering the full cost in the future.
We have a quote – not unreasonable – for almost eradicating poverty in Nepal. The question is whether the governments of the world are prepared to pay.
For context, the total wealth produced in OECD countries was around $60 trillion in 2018 and the total official development assistance effort of OECD countries was $178.9 billion in 2021. Less than 3% of this sum could launch a program that will ultimately extend social protection to the entire population of Nepal.
COVID-19 has debunked the myth that social protection is something that should only target the poorest of the poor to protect them from absolute misery. We all need social protection to keep us afloat in times of crisis. It’s what keeps us going when life throws its way, meaning the economies of countries that invest in social protection are much more resilient to shocks than those that don’t.
With the majority of the world’s population lacking any form of protection – including in Asia and the Pacific where only 44% of people have access to at least one social benefit – and the cost of providing it prohibitive for many countries income, a Global Fund for Social Protection is certainly the only viable way forward.
If the global community and governments are serious about eradicating poverty and ensuring a more resilient future for all, they must stop hiding behind so-called constraints and put the Global Social Protection Fund into action.