Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Can Social Protection Floors guarantee food security?

Stephen Devereux
by Stephen Devereux 
The ILO Recommendation Concerning National Floors of Social Protection, unanimously adopted at the 101st International Labour Conference in June 2012, is a significant achievement, to be applauded by everyone who has campaigned for social protection over the past 10-15 years. But is this also a victory for those who campaign for food security and the human right to adequate food for all? In my opinion, it is not.

In 2012, I was involved in producing a report by the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) for the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) titled ‘Social Protection for Food Security’. Our report argued that the Social Protection Floor does not guarantee national, household or individual food security, and we argued for a complementary ‘Food Security Floor’. The ILO disagreed.

“The ILO recommendation guides member states towards building social protection systems, with the objective that over the life-cycle all individuals have access to adequate goods and services to achieve income security, which would include food security. In other words, the Social Protection Floor will be sufficient to achieve the right to food for all. The ILO recommendation therefore adequately addresses the concerns raised in the HLPE report.”
Author’s notes from the 39th CFS meeting in October 2012; not a direct quotation from an official document of the ILO.

On 18 March 2013, this issue was discussed at a seminar on ‘Social protection as a catalyst for food security and the right to adequate food’, hosted by the ILO in Geneva and co-organised by OxfamFIAN,  and IUF.

At the workshop I argued that, if “income security [does] include food security”, then food security is a subset of income security, and any situation or cause of food insecurity should be amenable to an income transfer. This is not correct: the determinants of food (in)security are more complex.

Standard frameworks for food (and nutrition) security have four components: availability, access, stability and utilisation. The two ‘guarantees’ of the Social Protection Floor – basic income security and access to essential health care for all – can address access to food directly (by providing food transfers or cash transfers that finance food purchases), but they can address food availability, stability and utilisation only indirectly, if at all.

A much wider range of food security and social protection instruments is available that addresses each component of food and nutrition security directly. For example, agricultural input subsidies promote food availability. Various cash and in-kind transfers boost access to food. Stability of food access can be addressed by seasonal employment programmes and strategic management of grain reserves. Effective utilisation of food requires improved feeding and care practices, good public health and sanitation.

Moreover, empirical evidence reveals many reasons why income transfers to a household might not be equitably distributed to all household members so that each achieves food security all the time, even if the transfers are sufficient to meet all their subsistence needs. These reasons include: gendered control over income and food, intra-household discrimination against weaker household members, and the intergenerational transmission of malnutrition. Even an individually targeted income transfer that provides enough food or cash to meet that person’s subsistence needs might not do so if the transfer is ‘diluted’ among several individuals. A well-known example is a social pension that is spent on orphaned grandchildren as well as the pensioner.

A bigger question for social protection generally is whether systemic problems in the food system are better addressed with targeted income transfers that address the consequences of food insecurity, or with structural interventions that address the causes of food insecurity. Market failures and food price variability (inflation, seasonality or price spikes) undermine the purchasing power of cash transfers and compromise their capacity to deliver food security. Is the appropriate response to raise cash transfers as prices rise, or to invest in infrastructure (such as rural roads and communications) that integrates markets and helps to stabilise food supplies and prices?

If we accept the proposition that basic income security and access to essential health care are necessary but not sufficient to realise the right to adequate food for all people at all times, there are (at least) three options for national Social Protection Floors.

  1. Design national Social Protection Floors to address food insecurity: Calibrate and index-link income transfers against local food prices, to guarantee constant access to adequate food at whatever price; or deliver in-kind transfers rather than cash if food prices are variable.
  2. Integrate food security instruments into the Social Protection Floor: Complement income security and access to health care with instruments that operate at the community or sector level (e.g. food price stabilisation) as well as targeted support to individuals and households.
  3. Add food and nutrition security as a ‘third pillar’: Recognising that basic income security and access to health care cannot guarantee the right to adequate food, add ‘food and nutrition security for all’ to the Social Protection Floor as a third ‘guarantee’.

With social protection, food security and nutrition all riding high in the global development policy discourse, this workshop contributed to an emerging dialogue that needs to continue, if the potential synergies between the three overlapping agendas are to be better understood and effectively exploited.