Ruby Sandhu-Rojon, at the high-level opening session of the International Seminar on Social Protection in Africa

Apr 8, 2015

It gives me great pleasure and honor to deliver the keynote speech to such a distinguished audience, at this International Seminar on Social Protection in Africa, organized in partnership among the African Union Commission, the Government of Brazil, the Government of Senegal, Rio+ Center and UNDP. Discussing Social Protection could hardly be more timely and relevant for Africa than now when the continent’s leaders have resolved to make growth inclusive and eliminate poverty and exclusion by 2030.

Let me begin my speech, by recalling that when countries in Africa committed to the Millennium Development Goals, they were, by and large, at a much lower development stage than others. Yet, they have been able to make tremendous and accelerated progress towards the MDGs, and a number of them have even enjoyed sustained growth rates above 6 percent over the past decade. Overall, Africa has done well on some MDGs – such as primary school enrollment, gender parity in primary education, women’s representation in national parliaments, and the reversal of HIV and AIDS prevalence, incidence and deaths. However, the continent still lags behind the rest of the world on some of them. The MDGs in Africa remain an unfinished agenda, which the Sustainable Development Goals ought to complete.

Poverty in Africa is still widespread and tackling it remains central to Africa’s own development vision: Agenda 2063 and the Common African Position on the Post 2015 Development Agenda. In the past two decades, Africa has been able to bring the rate of extreme poverty down to only 48.5 per cent, from 56.5 per cent in 1990. However, the absolute number of poor people has increased. Today, there are more than twice as many poor people living in sub-Saharan Africa - 414 million -than there were at the beginning of the 1980s - 205 million.

In some cases, progress in human development has been stalled or even reversed by political, demographic, environmental, social and health related shocks. The recent outbreak of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone; the conflicts in Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, and the floods in Mozambique and Malawi, have taken lives, destroyed livelihoods, and increased the fiscal burdens of the affected countries. Such shocks have weakened communities, institutions and people and exacerbated their vulnerabilities.

Against this background and as we approach the UN Summit of the Heads of State and Government, in September this year, where a new and more ambitious Post-2015 development agenda will be adopted, we bear the moral responsibility to deploy policies and instruments which have proven effective in contributing to the fight against poverty, addressing vulnerabilities and build people’s resilience against future shocks. Institutionalizing effective social protection mechanisms is among such policies.

Social protection programmes have gained prominence as development strategies for lifting millions of people out of poverty and addressing their vulnerabilities throughout the developing world, including in Africa. According to the latest Africa MDG Progress Report, the number of African countries implementing social protection programmes almost doubled in only 3 years, from 21 in 2010 to 37 by 2013. Today, at least two-thirds of the countries in Africa have a social protection strategy in place. These strategies include cash transfers, public works programmes, and a wide range of safety nets for the poor and most vulnerable. To give you a sense of the order of magnitude of social protection in Africa, there are 123 cash transfer programmes implemented in 34 countries, and over 500 public work programmes.

The objective of social protection programmes in Africa is two-fold. Their main role has been to shield the affected populations from the multitude of crises – be it commodity price shocks, unemployment, weather-induced shocks (including droughts and erosions), or food insecurities – that seem to have become the new “norm” of our volatile times. But protection against life’s contingencies is not their sole purpose.

More recently, we are witnessing a paradigm shift from a welfare-type of assistance to social protection systems. Their aim is not only to protect households from sudden loss or decrease in income, but also to address the root causes of multidimensional poverty, inequalities and vulnerabilities and to make necessary investments in human capital. By promoting access to health services, education, and nutrition, social protection provides the poor with resources necessary for them to graduate out of poverty. The implementation of a cash transfer programme in Namibia has reduced the incidence of poverty by 22 percent. Also in South Africa, a social transfer programme reduced inequality - as measured by the Gini coefficient - by seven percentage points.

However, social protection coverage is still extremely low in Africa. On a continent of just over one billion people, where almost half – 48.5 per cent (or 414 million) – are living in extreme poverty, defined as 1.25 USD/day (in PPP), approximately 222 million people are hardly earning any income or even meeting their basic needs. We estimate that only 20 percent of these – approximately 44 million people - have access to some form of social protection. In this context, considering the consistently high GDP levels across the continent, Africa needs and can afford more investments in social protection, in order to reach some additional 370 million people living below the 1.25 USD/day poverty line.

Moreover, Africa needs a broader, more systemic and holistic approach to social protection, one that is aligned with a person’s life-cycle, and addresses in a systematic manner peoples’ vulnerabilities associated with specific stages or events of their lives – for example, birth, childbearing, youth, old age, illness, disability, HIV and AIDS.

To that end, UNDP promotes a holistic and systemic approach to social protection, underpinned by the three pillars of sustainable development (social, economic and environmental) and human rights. This means policies and strategies – covering both formal and informal, community-based social protection – to support the provision of social assistance to those living in extreme poverty, while ensuring access to basic social services to all. UNDP promotes inclusive social protection policies that specifically target groups that are systemically marginalized and excluded, to provide them with the critical resources, such as health and education, to participate in productive processes. Grounding social protection in human rights, and particularly in social and economic rights, means that its provision is not limited to those in formal jobs, but to those whose basic human rights, like the right to food, health and education are not being fulfilled.

Our approach is in line with the “social protection floors”, a global initiative heralded by the ILO and endorsed by the UN system, to ensure a non-contributory social minimum, such as social pensions, child benefits, free basic healthcare and income support, to people out of work and to the poor. Several countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mozambique, South Africa and Togo, have adopted the concept of the social protection floor and are taking measures to implement it.

What’s more, social protection is part of the post-2015 development agenda. The global and national consultations on the post-2015 development agenda – supported by the UN system in several countries in Africa, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Niger, Mozambique, amongst others – are calling for protecting and promoting the right to social protection. The post-2015 agenda is calling on countries to “implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable” (Goal1) and to “adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality” (Goal 10).

There is also renewed momentum at the regional level for moving the social protection agenda forward, as a strategy for social and economic transformation. Over the last few years, social protection has become a unifying strategy at the African Union to address chronic poverty and promote progress on the MDGs. This position has been further solidified in a number of more recent regional instruments and initiatives, including the African Union’s Social Policy Framework (2008) Strategy for Africa, The African Civil Society Platform for Social Protection, the African Union Vision 2063 and the Common African Position on the post-2015 Development Agenda (CAP).

At the national level, innovative and home-grown social protection programmes are proving successful in contributing to reduce poverty and address inequality. For example:

- Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), a hybrid of cash transfers and public works, benefits more than 9 million people, and oversees the implementation of about 34,000 small works projects per year.

- Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP), ensures a beneficiary household is entitled to either a maize package of fertilizers and seeds, a tobacco package of fertilizers or a cotton package of chemicals and seeds. This substantially increased the number of food-secure households from 67 percent in 2005 to 99 percent in 2009 and per capita cereal consumption from170 kg to 285 kg over the same period.

- Rwanda’s Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme is grounded in the national development strategy and is implemented through a highly decentralized administrative structure and an innovative targeting system, the programme provides unconditional cash transfers, public works employment and financial services.

- The Old Age Pensions in Lesotho confirms that even low-income countries can provide regular cash transfers, with a non-contributory scheme, targeting specific groups of the population.

We, at UNDP, have been supporting many such programmes. Through our Country Offices we support governments to design and implement social protection policies, systems and programmes. Out of 53 social protection projects and initiatives supported by UNDP in 2014, 41 are in Africa. In Cabo Verde, UNDP helped the country to reach national consensus on social protection embedded in the long-term development strategy; in Togo, UNDP helped implement the National Solidarity Fund to provide a quick response in case of shocks. In Southern and Eastern Africa, we undertook extensive analysis of social protection schemes to inform future policy-making. And currently, we are working in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone on initiatives supporting local communities to cope with the devastating effects of Ebola.

Still, the challenges facing social protection formulation and implementation in Africa are considerable. Structural weaknesses including low coverage, weak targeting, lack of coordination, and weak implementation capacity are limiting the full potentials of social protection. Fragmentation, consisting of a large number of small projects operating in isolation remaining at the pilot stage, is also a critical challenge that needs to be addressed by taking a systemic approach to social protection.

Chronic underfinancing and overdependence on donor resources in the social protection sector needs addressing. For instance, Kenya and Tanzania still spend less than 0.3 percent of GDP on social protection and in Madagascar, 75 percent of the population is deemed poor, but only 1 percent has been covered. In Burundi, 67 percent are below the national poverty line, but only 5 percent are reached by the safety nets.

Despite successful social protection programmes in the continent, most of them still remain at pilot interventions. With the exception of few countries like South Africa and Ethiopia, where safety nets have been scaled up and extended beyond pilots, many social protection programmes in Africa still remain at pilot stage. Scalability of social protection programme should be an integral part of their design.

The successful implementation of the African social protection agenda will depend to a great extent on the sustainability of its financing. ODA will remain critical for countries in Africa to support this agenda, particularly in LDCs and in resource-poor countries. To ensure its long-term financial sustainability, however, the social protection agenda needs to be firmly anchored in domestic resource mobilization. This could come through effective tax policies and their management, savings mobilization, and reversing the flow of illicit financial resources from Africa currently estimated at over 60 billion dollars. The forthcoming 3rd International Conference on Financing for Development, which will be hosted in Addis Ababa in July, will offer a platform where countries will renew their partnerships for ensuring that sustainable development strategies, including social protection, are backed by adequate and sustainable resources.

Brazil is one of the countries that has made giant strides in the use of social protection to make a dent in poverty and inequality. The country was able to reduce the population living below $1.0 per day from about 10 percent in 1995 to about 3.5 percent in 2012 and inequality from 0.6 to 0.52 during the same period. This is a very remarkable achievement, which African countries could benefit from.

This Seminar, offers a strategic opportunity to renew a longstanding partnership between African countries and Brazil, under the leadership of the African Union, the Government of Brazil and UNDP. I would like to recall that between 2006 and 2011, UNDP led the implementation of the Africa-Brazil Programme on Social Development. Funded by Brazil and DFID, the programme supported the sharing of knowledge and experiences between African countries and Brazil, on Conditional Cash Transfer Programs. Angola, Kenya, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zambia benefited from the Programme. For example, Ghana successfully implemented its Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP), and Kenya undertook the design and implementation of an integrated social protection registry. In these two days, we will have the opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences and from Brazil’s successful Bolsa Familia Progamme, which has helped lift millions out of poverty, advance education and health, and significantly reduced inequality levels.

South-South and Triangular collaboration is at the very heart of UNDP’s operations through our global, regional and country programmes. We see our role as being a knowledge broker, supporting capacity development and facilitation of Southern partnerships that will raise the voice, relevance and participation of the global South in international development. In this capacity, we look forward to working closely with our partners in Brazil to help tailor their experience on social protection provision to the African context.

UNDP commits to scaling up its support in the area of social protection in Africa and will allocate significant resources for this worthwhile initiative in close collaboration with the Brazil, Lula Institute and the African Union.

This seminar will propose recommendations for African countries to be presented at the at the African Union inter-ministerial meeting on Social Development, Labor and Employment at the end of this month on how to promote equitable access to social protection that is scalable, systemic and in line with people’s life cycle.

It also provides the opportunity to understand how Brazil was able to address the challenges of targeting, scalability, sustainability and efficient management of social protection in order to lift millions of people out of poverty and inequality. These lessons are pertinent to helping deepen social protection in Africa and making it a strategy for accelerating inclusive growth and structural transformation in the continent.

I thank you for your attention and wish you very fruitful deliberations on this very important agenda for Africa. 

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