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A trader counts out Ghanaian cedi banknotes at a market in Kampala, Uganda, May 17, 2023. © 2023 Katumba Badru Sultan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(Washington) – Governments and international financial institutions should make a commitment to create social security systems that enable everyone to realize their rights, 43 human rights and economic justice organizations said today. Governments and financial institutions should end policies that have been failing millions of people.

The groups sent a joint statement to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in advance of the 2023 annual meetings of both institutions in Marrakesh, Morocco, from October 9 to 15, 2023. The groups will hold an online meeting on October 4 to explain their call for change. Experts and activists will provide testimonies from Argentina, Chile, Uganda, and Sri Lanka.

“Amid mounting poverty and soaring inequality, where millions grapple daily to realize their economic, social and cultural rights, we cannot afford to maintain social security approaches that have been shown to fail rights,” said Tirana Hassan, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. “Governments and international financial institutions have an opportunity to course-correct and adopt a rights-aligned approach to social security that sets the tone and leads the way toward more just societies and economies.”

Social security is one of the cornerstones of human rights, sustainable economies, and just societies. It is enshrined in numerous legally binding international treaties and is provided through a set of public policies and programs often known as social protection. These programs ensure income security throughout an individual's life, offering support during life events such as childbirth, old age, illness, disability, unemployment, and circumstances such as climate disasters that elevate the risk of income insecurity, such as the earthquake that recently shook Morocco.

“The right to social protection for all is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and yet, 75 years later, global social protection falls shamefully short, with more than half of the global population lacking basic coverage, violating human rights,” said Luc Triangle, Acting General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Triangle said:

The international financial institutions bear immense responsibility for achieving universal social protection, but it's imperative to shift away from an outdated economic model that often endorses austerity measures. The workers’ call is clear: scaling up social protection financing, an investment for societies which dramatically reduces inequalities while boosting employment, skills, productivity, demand for goods and services, and overall GDP growth.

Many governments rely on social security programs that are means-tested, in which eligibility hinges on income, assets, or narrow poverty indicators. Research shows that these programs are often ineffective because of high error rates, corruption, and social mistrust. Focusing only on people in poverty or extreme poverty also excludes large segments of the population, including those who are not officially considered poor but are far from experiencing economic stability.

“This campaign shows that there are more and more civil society organizations who sees through the statement that ‘poverty-targeting is pro-poor’. In fact, universality is pro-poor, in line with human rights and a key strategy to promote social justice,” said Henrik Fröjmark, Policy Director of Act Church of Sweden.

Stephen Kidd, CEO of Development Pathways, said:

The push by international financial institutions to promote poverty-targeted social assistance schemes–following the poor relief model used by Europe in the 19th century– across lower-income countries has meant that the vast majority of those living on low incomes have been excluded from social security, while national social contracts have been undermined as a result of citizens losing trust in their governments. It’s time that the international financial institutions got behind a modern system of universal life cycle social security system that ensures that everyone can receive protection from childhood to old age and, importantly, helps rebuild trust in government, democracy and strong social contracts.

For decades, the World Bank and the IMF have promoted this flawed approach, the groups said. They have failed to consider social security as a right and that it contributes to building fairer and more stable societies, and not just charity. This has contributed to a global reality in which 53 percent of people lack any form of social security, and whereas instability, social defiance, and polarization are growing and the needs for resilience are greater than ever in the face of the climate crisis.

“On the African continent we have witnessed the dire impact of failing to prioritize social protection resulting in inequality, rising poverty, children dropping out of school and unnecessary deaths,” said Angella Nabwowe, Ag. Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights. Nabwowe said:

Governments must seize this moment to rethink current approaches to social protection that have excluded large segments of the population through targeting and must holistically invest in social protection. The World Bank/IMF and other funders must desist from promoting austerity and poverty targeting, all of which reduce the ability of our governments to adequately finance social protection and prioritize public services, including social protection.

Recent reforms in some countries have also eroded the right to social security, leading to reduced coverage and benefits. In some countries, these changes, supported by the World Bank or IMF, involved cuts to employer contributions or reduced benefits for the majority in the public system. Additionally, privatization of social insurance in some places has worsened poverty and inequality, disproportionately affecting women and older people.

Dr. Maria Ron Balsera, Director of Program at the Center for Economic and Social Rights, said:

The current polycrisis should trigger a shift to a rights-based economy which includes promoting the right to social security for all, supported by the framework of values and obligations of human rights. A rights-based economy demands action to redistribute resources, remedy inequalities, and rebalance power in our economies.

The groups strongly urge the IMF and the World Bank, pivotal actors in financing and shaping social security policies in low- and middle-income countries, to take four measures that could improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people:

  1. Commit to Realizing the Right to Social Security: Support countries’ efforts to realize the right to social security by establishing or strengthening rights-aligned universal social protection systems, beginning with social protection floors.
  2. End Poverty-Targeted Programs: In countries without universal coverage, stop developing new poverty-targeted programs, and phase out existing ones, replacing them with universal alternatives.
  3. Support Equitable and Sustainable Public Systems: The IMF and the World Bank should support equitable and sustainable public social security systems adhering to international standards. This includes adequate employer contributions and income security.
  4. Cease Austerity Measures: The IMF should halt austerity policies that threaten rights and refrain from promoting social spending trade-offs. Investments in health, education, and social security should, at a minimum, meet international benchmarks as a percentage of GDP and national budgets.

“It is high time that governments, the World Bank, and the IMF acted to make universal social protection a reality,” said Marta Schaaf, the climate, economic and social justice, and corporate accountability director at Amnesty International. Schaaf said:

The extraordinary combination of political, economic and climate crises is battering the lives and livelihoods of billions of people who have little or no access to social protection measures. Investing in universal social protection can provide security and dignity, and fulfill the right to social security for all. Protecting people against personal losses or losses due to shocks, from disasters or economic reversals, can be transformational, enabling children to stay in education, improving health care, reducing poverty and income inequality.

“We demand a full restructuring and change in social protection policies,” said Shereen Talat, MenaFem Movement for Economic, Development and Ecological Justice director. “We reject incremental reforms and call for a transformation of the global system. Genuine social protection means empowering the marginalized, eradicating poverty, and ensuring ecological justice. Anything less than this will be undermining the global crisis and perpetuation of injustice."

Signatories to the joint statement:

  1. Act Church of Sweden
  2. Amnesty International
  3. Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND)
  4. Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  5. Association For Promotion Sustainable Development
  6. Bretton Woods Project
  7. Building Blocks for Peace Foundation
  8. Center for Economic and Policy Research
  9. Center for Economic and Social Rights
  10. Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice
  11. CeSSRA - Centre for Social Sciences Research & Action
  12. Colombo Urban Lab, Sri Lanka
  13. Community Legal Education Center
  14. Development Pathways
  15. Elibariki Msengi
  16. Forum for Wildlife and Environment Preserve (FOWEP)
  17. Free Trade Union Development Center
  18. Friend of the Disabled Association
  19. Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors (GCSPF)
  20. Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR)
  21. Global Redistribution Advocates
  22. Global Social Justice (GSJ)
  23. Global Social Justice Brussels
  24. Human Dignity
  25. Human Rights Watch
  26. Initiative for Right View (IRV)
  27. Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER)
  28. Institute for Economic Justice
  29. International Trade Union Confederation - ITUC 
  30. JusticeMakers Bangladesh in France (JMBF)
  31. Kikandwa Environmental Association
  32. Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation
  33. Madhira Institute
  34. MenaFemMovement For Economic, Development and Ecological Justice
  35. National Campaign for Sustainable Development Nepal
  36. Oxfam International
  37. Phenix Center
  38. PRO Global/Pensioners without Borders
  39. RAISE - Research & Action for Income Security
  40. Social Policy Initiative
  41. The Policy Initiative, Lebanon
  42. The General Confederation of Labour, CGT Argentina
  43. Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO)

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