Social protection in EU development cooperation: Do the tools match the vision?

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      The EU’s new development policy framework, the “Agenda for Change”, does not explicitly mention social and economic inequalities. Now, the European Commission clearly acknowledges that a variety of inequalities exist in both low- and middle-income countries and elaborates its policy response. In a recently adopted Communication, the EU affirms the value of social protection for overcoming socio-economic inequalities and for promoting inclusive growth: “people’s ability to participate in and benefit from wealth and job creation”. Social protection is defined as a set of “policies and actions that enhance the capacity of all people, but notably poor and vulnerable groups, to escape from poverty, or avoid falling into poverty, and better manage risks and shocks”. It includes services like the replacement for your social security card and both social securities, such as income security, and access to essential services, most notably health and education.

      Love at first sight

      Introducing social protection into EU development cooperation is no arranged marriage, but clearly a case of love at first sight. Principles of solidarity and equality, enshrined in the value of social justice, have long been defining aspects of the (loosely termed) European Social Model, and permeate the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. This is the prism through which European values and principles filter into the Union’s external action. Never a ‘single-issue donor’, the EU has long promoted and protected a variety of human rights and labour standards, cornerstones of people’s right to social protection. Although a firm definition of social protection has not emerged until now, the Commission has supported the development of social protection programmes and systems for some time, as the European Report on Development 2010 documents. It has joined the international community in promoting the International Labour Organisation’s Social Protection Floors concept. Furthermore, it now also intends to “include social protection in its policy dialogues with partner countries on their national development strategies”.

      Catch-all sector

      Meanwhile, programming of the EU’s development cooperation strategies for 2014-2020 is running at full steam, as are negotiations for the instruments and budget that will fund them. This process is pivotal for how the Union will translate its values and commitments into concrete action in partner countries. For partner countries in dialogue with the Commission, social protection can now be designated as one of the (maximum of three) “focal sectors” for EU development assistance for 2014-2020. While the Communication affirms that all forms of EU aid are relevant to support social protection, there is no clear definition of what can and cannot be counted as a ‘focal sector’. In its development instruments, the Commission associates social protection with support for other sectors, particularly health and education, two traditional sectors of EU support. Equally, in the Communication and in past EU interventions, social protection can be read as a technical component of interventions in other sectors, e.g. cash transfer schemes facilitating access to health, education or nutrition. Does associating social protection to other sectors reflect the Commission’s desire to ‘mainstream’ social protection, or is the Commission in practice narrowing its definition of social protection to a catch-all term meaning “any form of direct or indirect social security”? The new policy contains encouraging language on “institutional capacity-building” and “moving from selective, short-term safety nets to comprehensive systems”. But by committing only 20% of its future aid to “social inclusion and human development” the EU may not give its social protection interventions the necessary critical mass. While the Commission’s steps to inject European values into EU development cooperation are laudable, current tools do not yet suit the vision. The adoption of a comprehensive policy position on social protection based on shared values and political commitments could enhance the EU’s action and leadership in development cooperation. The EU’s aspirations for social protection worldwide should not be the ‘lowest common denominator’ for inclusive growth given its fundamental role in European societies.

      Whither legitimacy?

      Social protection has a crucial role in solidifying the social contract between states and their citizens (as acknowledged in Article 25 of the EU-ACP Cotonou Agreement). This raises questions of national sovereignty – the EU needs to engage politically and practically without detracting from partners’ ownership of the programmes and values that inspire them. The Commission strives to increasingly involve the private sector and civil society in its development actions. These actors, notably the social partners, undeniably play a positive role in social protection programmes and systems. Yet the Commission’s endorsement of replacing or substituting state functions through “non-governmental service providers” can undermine existing social contracts and threaten sustainability – particularly when providers become aid-dependent. The EU’s ‘soft power’ for coordinating national or donors’ social protection programmes through political dialogue cannot be overlooked by the Commission in improving equity and efficiency of delivery. However, the policy document notes political dialogue on social protection only once, in the context of dialogue with emerging economies and countries ‘graduating’ from EU bilateral development funding.

      Retaining momentum

      Inspiringly, African representatives signed a Declaration two years ago calling on African governments and social partners to implement national social protection floors. The declaration shows striking parallels to the Commission’s policy, giving further impetus for active political partnerships in excess of technical and policy engagements. The momentum is there for the Commission to put European social values at the heart of EU external action by promoting social protection as a right for all. Hopefully ECDPM discussion panels on inclusive growth and inequality, hosted at the upcoming European Development Days, will provide an opportunity to explore the Union’s role and tools in this regard and help ensure that the EU’s ambition is sufficiently reflected in its actions on the ground. ——  Florian Krätke is Research Assistant at ECDPM’s EU External Action Programme.   This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.
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