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All you ever wanted to know about the UN social protection floor initiative

Time (GMT +01) 12:30 14:00
Hero image description: Social protection cash transfer, Malawi Image credit:Rachel Slater Image license:ODI given rights


Michael Cichon - Director, Social Security Department, ILO
Rachel Slater – Head of Social Protection, ODI

Nicholas Freeland - Independent consultant, Former Programme Director, Regional Hunger & Vulnerability Programme in Southern Africa
Angela Penrose – Coordinator, Grow Up Free From Poverty Coalition

1.    At this public event, the International Labour Organisation's Michael Cichon, one of the managers of the UN Social Protection Floor (SPF) Initiative, joined ODI for an interview and question and answer session exploring the reality of the UN SPF's exciting new direction in social protection policy. The event was hosted by Rachel Slater, Head of ODI’s Social Protection Programme, and aimed to provide more information about the SPF. The SPF is frequently discussed, but many issues are still unclear, and this event sought to allow for a more open discussions.

2.    Rachel opened the event by introducing Michael Cichon, before starting with a set of questions.

3.    Rachel asked what the SPF is, where has it come from, and whether it is a new idea or an old idea repackaged?

                      I.        Michael provided background information on the SPF, and explained that it is the most exciting initiative the UN has on Social Protection. It is a set of tools that provide people with a minimum level of income and services.

                     II.        Michael also explained that currently the ILO is negotiating a new instrument for the SPF.

                    III.        Michael highlighted that ideas of Social Protection and Social Security go back a long way, but also stressed that the SPF adds to this, by trying to combine ideas of core Social Security with objectives that would fit a broad range of countries and existing systems, and also going further than that, to suggest that people who do not current have Social Security should be covered, and that there is no excuse for not trying to achieve this.

4.    Rachel asked what components the SPF entails.

                      I.        Michael highlighted that it is important to remember that each country has its own definition of what Social Security should entail, and so has the ILO. Nevertheless, effectively, the SPF is an income security and anti-poverty mechanism.

                     II.        Michael explained that the four essential guarantees the ILO promotes are: (i) access to essential health care services; (ii) children’s income security, through family and child benefits, aimed at facilitating access to nutrition, education and care; (iii) minimum income security through social assistance for those who are not able to earn sufficient income; and (iv) access to pensions for old age and disability. 

                    III.        As one can never get an agreement on what specific benefits should be included in a SPF, the SPF is instead based on those four guarantees.  The guarantees set objectives and performance benchmarks for  national social protection but they do not prescribe what specific benefits should give effect to the guarantees at the national level.

                   IV.        There are tensions about the SPF being specific about what it is, but at the same time not imposing a blueprint.  It is difficult to draw a line between what can be mandated internationally, and what should be national ownership. The ILO would like to guarantee the 4 components above; but how to do this, and what this means at the country level has to be decided at the national level. This is the difference between the guarantees and the benefits, an aspect that frequently causes confusion.

5.    Rachel then asked about commitment, ownership and rights

                      I.        Countries that accept the SPF on an international level, are then taking this commitment to the national level, where it will then be decided on how and what to implement. This is a national process, but international organisations can, help with technical support, if this is required.

                     II.        Michael further stressed that civil society on the ground has a crucial role to play at this stage by creating the policy space for what the SPF. Having the international commitment helps, because civil society now has something concrete to push for.

                    III.        The ILO would expect that the SPF is enshrined in the law

6.    Rachel asked how SP should be implemented, without risking undermining other, equally important sectors.

                      I.        Michael said that the SPF can be a policy objective that can be progressively achieved and prioritised. He emphasized that it is important to spell out objectives and make a claim on resources, because without this, SP will not get a share of the budget, because there are other programmes that want, and require, a share of the overall budget.

                     II.        Michael further highlighted that many countries are already spending a high share of GDP SP, but that this may not always be spent in the most effective and efficient ways when it come as regards alleviating poverty and reducing social exclusion. .

7.    Future – Rachel suggested that there are various views held about whether to include SP in the MDGs as a goal, and raised concerns about whether SP should be seen as a goal or a means to achieving a goal.

                      I.        Michael thinks that logically, SP should be seen as a means to an end, as opposed to a target in itself. SP serves the purpose to invest in people, and to reduce social exclusion and poverty, and to push for greater equality. Nevertheless, indicators, such as SP coverage, are tangible and can be measured.

                     II.        Michael further highlighted that it is also important to recognise that many other agendas will be present for post-MDG discussions, and it is crucial to have clearly specified objectives.

                    III.        Civil society plays a major in promoting SP further, and in taking the message and making a case at the national level.

8.    Angela Penrose, Coordinator at the “Grow Up Free From Poverty Coalition” joined as a discussant, and suggested there are four points to dwell on:

                      I.        Angela stressed that SP is a right in itself, as well as a means to an end (poverty reduction).

                     II.        Particular groups of people cannot work and need income security.

                    III.        The tension between flexibility and a blueprint remain. The SPF should be tailored to national circumstances, and could provide ideas on how to move forward.

                   IV.        There is a question around how to keep Civil Society engaged in this, at the national level.

9.    Nicholas Freeland - Independent consultant and Former Programme Director for the Regional Hunger & Vulnerability Programme in Southern Africa also joined as a discussant. Nicholas thought the idea has always been a great one, and was happy to see the package to deliver this idea move in the right way. Nevertheless, there are weaknesses in the way in which the floor has been sold. As such, Nicholas raised some caveats:

                      I.        The SPF claimed too much credit for already existing programmes in the early days.

                     II.        Initially, it was unclear as to whether the SPF was a prescription or a process; this has changed, and it is increasingly clear that the SPF is a process. Nevertheless, some people continue to push this as an instrument, whereas the SPF should not be prescriptive.

                    III.        What is further required is evidence of how the SPF plays out at the national level.  More evidence of what the SPF has achieved on the ground is required, and what the added value over other initiatives is.

10.  Following the discussants’ summaries, and the official question and answer session, the floor was opened to questions from the audience, online and at ODI. Questions raised included

                      I.        What is the ILO’s stance on conditionality?

                                          i.    The SPF only guarantees income security, but there is full national flexibility on schemes and instruments.

                     II.        How can the ILO support Civil Society in promoting Social Protection?

                                          i.    The ILO makes the Rapid Assessment Protocol and trainings available, which assess whether a country has a complete SFP, or what would be required to achieve it. These can be used by civil society to make a valid argument to national policy-makers.

                    III.        Some countries like India already have achieved most of the SPF, given the range of programmes and rights in place, but many of these are not effective. Would signing up to the SPF help improve the effectiveness of existing programmes?

                                          i.    The Rapid Assessment Protocol asses both the legal side of the SPF, as well as effectiveness (e.g. how many people who are eligible have access to the benefits in reality).

                   IV.        Recognition that cash transfers work, because there is buy-in at the domestic level. Systems that come from the international level, and are imposed at the national level will ultimately fail. How can we build the political support that is required?

                                          i.    The national policy space can only be provided by national policy-makers and programmes will only work if there is national political buy-in

                    V.        Can we use other funding flows to create fiscal space, e.g. private flows or international financing.

                                          i.    Yes, but in the long-run donor dependency is not sustainable. In the long-run SP systems need to be endogenously financed.

                   VI.        What is the stance of the employer group at the ILO towards the SPF?

                                          i.    The employers generally have a positive stance. While they are worried about the tax burden, they perceive the SPF as part of the decent work agenda.


The International Labour Organisations's Michael Cichon, one of the managers of the UN Social Protection Floor (SPF) Initiative, joins ODI for an interview and question and answer session exploring the reality of the UN SPF's exciting new direction in social protection policy. Rachel Slater, Head of the ODI's Social Protection Programme chairs the interview with the opportunity for questions from the audience and from online to feed into our discussion.

The SPF is an integrated set of social policies designed to guarantee a minimum level of income security and access to essential health care for all . The UN initiative is lead by ILO and WHO  and has been endorsed  by a number of international bodies, inter alia by the United Nations at the 2010 Millennium Development Summit, the 100th International Labour Conference 2011 and the G20 Summit in Cannes in  2011.  The 101th International Labour Conference in June 2012 will discuss a new international standard on National Social Protection Floors.  

Since its inception the SPF has provoked a mix of enthusiastic support, skepticism and confusion in equal measure. This public event, hosted by Rachel Slater, Head of ODI's Social Protection Programme, offers a unique opportunity to learn about the initiative and to question Michael, either directly at the event, or through our online chatroom. You can also email any specific questions in advance to Jessica Hagen-Zanker ([email protected]).