Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Social protection: asking too much of the individual?

Keetie Roelen (left) and Martina Ulrichs (right)
By Keetie Roelen and Martina Ulrichs

Social protection is now considered to be an integral part of the response to an array of different development issues. These range from reducing poverty and vulnerability to improving education and nutritional outcomes to increasing the levels of resilience to deal with droughts, unemployment and other shocks.

The toolkit for addressing these different problems includes social transfers, conditional cash transfers (CCTs) and public works, amongst others. The large majority of programmes, however, share a similar characteristic; they are designed based on the assumption that poverty is largely a result of individual constraints, such as low levels of education or physical assets, rather than due to structural factors. Social protection programmes address these individual constraints, thereby providing the poor with the necessary means to pull themselves out of poverty and improve their living conditions. But is this a safe assumption to make?

In a newly published Centre for Social Protection (CSP) working paper ‘Equal opportunities for all? – A critical analysis of Mexico’s Oportunidades’, we argue that despite the many positive contributions of social protection, too much of a focus on individuals or households might overlook the structural causes that keep them in poverty. If someone achieves higher levels of education, this could potentially help them to get a better job and higher income. But what if there is no school nearby? And if there is one, what if the quality of education is so poor that higher levels of education will not translate into skilled employment? The power of the individual in moving out of poverty only reaches so far, and social protection programmes need to be accompanied by more structural and macro-level changes that address the underlying causes of inequality.

The Oportunidades programme in Mexico and its impact on indigenous people is a case in point. Oportunidades is one of the most long-standing and reputable CCT programmes, providing poor households with cash transfers when they fulfil particular criteria with respect to education and health. Indeed, the programme has been found to have many positive impacts such as reducing poverty, increasing school enrolment and improving children’s nutritional outcomes. Its long-term objective is to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty by incentivising parents to send their children to school and thus increase their employment opportunities and wage earning potential. Indigenous people in Mexico have consistently belonged to the poorest of the poor and are strongly represented among the programme beneficiaries. One out of four Oportunidades beneficiaries is indigenous.

The case of indigenous people in Mexico illustrates how the emphasis on the individual’s responsibility in moving out of poverty may be misplaced. Firstly, the educational services that indigenous people have access to are generally of low quality, limiting the extent to which they can build ‘human capital’. Secondly, low social mobility of indigenous people limits their employment opportunities. Finally, persistent wage differentials between indigenous and non-indigenous people limit the extent to which indigenous people can really benefit from paid and formal employment. For indigenous people to benefit from Oportunidades to the same extent as non-indigenous people, and as intended by the programme, structural changes are required that go beyond the individual’s level of responsibility or reach.

Programmes like Oportunidades have been milestones in providing social protection to the poor. They can however only be effective in combating poverty in the long-term if they go hand in hand with more comprehensive social policy agendas that go beyond the individual and address the root causes of inequality and poverty.