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Social protection for children not adequate according to new World Social Protection report

UNICEF-ILO research reveals gaps in social protection coverage, comprehensiveness across all countries and recommends how to push forward
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1 September 2021 – A new report launched today by the International Labour Organization (ILO) provides a global overview of progress made around the world over the past decade in extending social protection and building rights-based social protection systems, in the context of COVID-19, and with input from UNICEF Innocenti on social protection gaps and opportunities for children.

As COVID-19 continues to imperil years of progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), this report underscores what steps must be taken to continue progress in poverty reduction. The World Social Protection Report: Social protection at the crossroads – in pursuit of a better future, a flagship of the ILO, is an essential contribution to the monitoring framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The pandemic has brought to light the pre-existing stark protection gaps across all countries and made it impossible to ignore the persistent social protection deficits experienced in particular by certain groups, such as informal workers, migrants, unpaid carers, and notably: children.

Five key messages from the report:

  1. The pandemic has exposed deep-seated inequalities and significant gaps in social protection coverage, comprehensiveness and adequacy across all countries.
  2. COVID-19 provoked an unparalleled social protection policy response.
  3. Socio-economic recovery remains uncertain and enhanced social protection spending will continue to be crucial.
  4. Countries are at a crossroads with regard to the trajectory of their social protection systems.
  5. Establishing universal social protection and realizing the human right to social security for all is the cornerstone of a human-centred approach to obtaining social justice.

Key messages on social protection for families and children

COVID-19 is expected to reverse the modest progress made in reducing child poverty. Before COVID-19 there had been a reduction in children living in extreme poverty from  19.5 per cent of children in 2013 to 17.5 per cent of children  in 2017, ( 356 million ). It is estimated that the pandemic has increased the number of children living in income-poor households by more than 142 million, bringing the total to almost 725 million.

Section 4.1 of the report, Social protection for children and families, was co-authored by UNICEF Innocenti's Chief of Social and Economic Policy, Dominic Richardson, and underscores how social protection for children remains limited, yet is critical for unlocking their potential. The vast majority of children still have no effective social protection coverage, as only 26.4 per cent of children globally receive social protection benefits. Furthermore, effective social protection is particularly low in some regions: 18 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, 15.4 per cent in the Arab States and 12.6 per cent in Africa.

Figure ES.1 SDG indicator 1.3.1: Effective social protection coverage, global and regional estimates, by population group, 2020 or latest available year 

*To be interpreted with caution: estimates based on reported data coverage below 40% of the population.

Sources: ILO, World Social Protection Database, based on the SSI; ILOSTAT; national sources.

National expenditure, on average, for social protection for children is too low, equating to only 1.1 per cent of GDP, compared to 7 per cent of GDP spent on pensions. The regions of the world with the largest share of children in the population, and the greatest need for social protection, have some of the lowest coverage and expenditure rates, especially sub-Saharan Africa (0.4 per cent of GDP). Consequently, the need to close gaps in social protection coverage, comprehensiveness and adequacy and to address child poverty is of overriding urgency.

Before and during the pandemic there have been positive developments, including the adoption of universal or quasi-universal child benefits in several countries. Critically, COVID-19 has reignited attention to and awareness of the importance of inclusive social protection systems, high-quality childcare services, and of the need for social protection for caregivers.

While the crisis response to COVID-19 was unprecedented, with fiscal stimuli adopted globally, it was insufficiently child-sensitive. This deficiency, combined with the risk of a return to austerity, puts recent progress in social protection systems for children in jeopardy.

Key recommendations for enhancing social protection for children

  • Avoid fiscal austerity and use recovery as a policy opportunity to further strengthen child-sensitive and inclusive social protection systems in order to ensure children’s well-being and achieve the SDGs.
  • Move rapidly towards universal social protection for children at the country level – including universal child benefits and the policy window provided by COVID-19 must be used to prioritize investments to close critical gaps.
  • Ensure adequacy within social protection systems in terms of inclusion and gender sensitivity, and that they address climate-related and conflict-related risks.

It is also of paramount importance that policymakers implement an integrated social protection portfolio for children that includes child benefits and childcare services, provision of parental leave, and access to healthcare to deliver the best results for children and society.