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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to social protection for all without discrimination -- a commitment to provide relief to our fellow human beings in times of need. That declaration was signed in 1948.

More than seven decades later, and despite relentlessly making the case for it, this human right is still only enjoyed by a minority of people in Asia and the Pacific.

Many people still think of social protection as charity, rather than a human right.

Perhaps we, the international community, have not spoken loudly enough about the aggregate benefits of universal social protection. An overwhelming body of evidence shows, unequivocally, that well-resourced social protection schemes underpin healthy societies and economies. In times of crisis, they allow countries to bounce back quicker; protecting the unemployed from poverty, providing access to health care to keep us safe, and supporting productivity and demand.

Still ours is a region where underinvestment in social protection has long been the norm. One where patchy coverage means that more than half the population has no access to any social protection whatsoever. Instead, they are left to fend for themselves when the going gets tough. Less than a third of workers have access to contributory schemes, leaving the vast majority locked out. Often, non-contributory benefits are only made available for the poorest of the poor.

COVID-19 is an opportunity to get back on track. The pandemic has provided an irrefutable empirical comparison. It has shown countries with broad social protection coverage to be considerably better equipped to respond to the unexpected than those without, which have had to rush to introduce new measures. So, if the recent surge in social protection measures is welcome, it must lead to a more permanent universal social protection architecture.

Unlike the pandemic, emerging trends such as population ageing, climate change and technological innovation have slower onsets. In preparing for them, social protection for all is urgently needed.

Phenomenal development gains could be achieved by extending a basic level of universal protection. ESCAP and ILO have joined forces to quantify it. In The Protection We Want we have demonstrated how universal old-age pensions, child and disability benefits could radically reduce poverty.

The basic benefit levels we used were set at the global averages (4 per cent of GDP per capita for child benefits, 14 per cent of GDP per capita for disability benefits and 16 per cent of GDP per capita for pensions).

If these were made universal for all children, persons with severe disabilities and older persons, the proportion of recipient households living in poverty would be slashed by up to 18 percentage points. The impact would be greatest in Indonesia, Mongolia, Maldives and Thailand, where poverty rates in recipient households would decrease by half. In Indonesia the share of households living in poverty would plunge from 32 per cent to 14 per cent. Thailand could bring its poverty rate among recipient households down to 1 per cent.

In 9 out of the 13 countries analysed, more than a third of the population currently living in poverty would no longer be impoverished. In Indonesia, more than half the population would be lifted out of poverty, literally millions of people.

Income inequality would also be reduced, bringing the national Gini coefficient down by 10 per cent on average. The purchasing power of recipient households would be bolstered by up to a 24 per cent. In the poorest households in Indonesia, Maldives, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, it would increase sharply, by 50 per cent.

These development gains are worth the investment. Establishing basic social protection schemes for children, older persons and persons with disabilities would cost between 2 and 6 per cent of GDP: a level within reach for most countries in the region.

The time has come to place social protection at the heart of all national development strategies, alongside measures to increase the tax base and reprioritize existing allocations of public spending. Many developing countries in the region are now at similar levels of GDP per capita to those in high-income countries when they established their systems. Countries should not wait to get rich before they step up investment in their people through universal social protection.

Governments from across our region recently recognized social protection’s extraordinary benefits at the sixth Committee on Social Development convened by ESCAP. The meeting agreed to a regional action plan to strengthen cooperation to broaden effective social protection coverage.

72 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, let’s make sure we act on it. Let’s make 2020 remembered for more than a deadly pandemic. Let it be the year the Asia-Pacific region embraced universal social protection and started to lift millions out of vulnerability and insecurity by upholding a human right.

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Srinivas Tata
Director - Social Development Division
Social Development +66 2 288-1234 escap-sdd@un.org
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