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Dilli Haat open air market in New Delhi, India, April 21, 2023. © 2023 Sipa via AP Images

(New York) – Governments and international lenders like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank should create and support universal social security systems in accordance with their human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch and Development Pathways said today in releasing a question-and-answer document about the subject. Amid intersecting conflicts, economic crises, and climate shocks, governments’ long-term investment in universal social security is more important than ever.

Social security is premised on people enjoying their rights at all stages of life, irrespective of their circumstances. It encompasses a web of government programs that provide support in various situations that may affect a person’s ability to earn an adequate income, such as sickness, disability, old age, unemployment, and childrearing. However, more than half of the world’s population lacks access to any form of social security. Even in wealthier countries, significant gaps exist in coverage and adequacy, limiting the effectiveness of social security systems.

“Social security is a key tool for governments to reduce inequality and protect people from experiencing poverty, hunger, or homelessness,” said Lena Simet, senior researcher on poverty and inequality at Human Rights Watch. “The compounding economic, food, and climate crises should move governments to build security systems that protect human rights, not cut back on existing programs.”

The organizations explain in the question-and-answer document the human rights obligations and responsibilities of governments and entities that influence social spending, and the importance of universal social security to meeting them. They also explain the basics of universal social security, how it can reduce and prevent poverty and inequality and protect human rights, including in times of crisis, and how governments can overcome impediments to providing it.

Social security for all members of a society is both a human right and a necessary condition for the realization of other economic, social and cultural rights, particularly the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the rights to food and to adequate housing. International law obligates governments to provide social security as well as to ensure access to quality public services essential to human rights, such as education, health care, water, and sanitation.

More than four billion people lack access to any social protection, the term often used by United Nations agencies and international development organizations. This lack of coverage is most concentrated in low- and middle-income countries, which face significant financing gaps between their current investments and what is needed to support a basic level of social security. Coverage is lowest in Africa, where merely 17.4 percent of the population are covered by at least one form of social security benefit. Though coverage is higher in Europe and North America, Human Rights Watch has documented the failure of many wealthier nations to realize the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Spain.

The organizations describe in the question-and-answer document how governments can address gaps in social security coverage and adequacy. The also explain why governments should shift away from narrowly means tested targeted programs toward more universal systems.

The groups outline how countries can close financing gaps in ways that protect human rights, such as through progressive taxes on wealth and excess profits of large corporations, combating tax evasion and avoidance, and eradicating illicit financial flows. Human Rights Watch also urges wealthier nations to help advance equitable social security financing by promoting a Global Fund for Social Protection that complies with human rights requirements.

Governments should address gaps in social security coverage and adequacy and urge creditor nations to commit to rights-respecting debt restructuring processes that enable governments to fund universal social security, Human Rights Watch and Development Pathways said. Powerful international lenders like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank should ensure that their lending programs do not undermine the right to social security, as it may happen for instance by imposing strict limits on government spending as conditions of lending programs.

“Universal, rights-aligned social security systems are much more effective than poverty-targeted systems at reducing poverty and achieving more equitable outcomes for all members of society,” said Dr. Stephen Kidd, Development Pathways’ CEO. “And they are more likely to support economic growth and strengthen progressive social contracts, meaning that they are also more sustainable, both financially and politically.”

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