|Volume 7 | Issue 02 | February 2013 ||
United Nations International Social Justice Day and the Promise of Improved Social Protection in Bangladesh
Equity is a core principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, successive UN conventions and the constitutions of many nation states, including that of Bangladesh. Social justice, and with it the promise of economic, social and cultural rights is the embodiment of development with equity. The aim of these commitments is to promote peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations, based on human dignity and non-discrimination.
Although these rights -- to shelter, to food, education, health, decent work and livelihoods -- have been controversial in the past, their place is now well-established in international law. To be clear, these are cast in terms of access to opportunities and capabilities, based on the principle of fair provision of public services and exercise of law between people and groups. It is recognised also that resource constraints may limit achievement of these rights, yet it is, nevertheless incumbent on governments to take all necessary action to secure them. For the United Nations, the pursuit of social justice is at the centre of our global mission, and we seek in all that we do, to support governments in meeting these obligations. While monitoring and reporting has its place, advocacy and support is still more significant, especially in this very challenging area. For Bangladesh, these types of commitment also have a strong grounding -- notably in Article 15 of the Constitution which states:
“It shall be a fundamental responsibility of the State to attain… a steady improvement in the material and cultural standard of living of the people, with a view to securing to its citizens… the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care; the right to work, that is the right to guaranteed employment at a reasonable wage having regard to the quantity and quality of work; the right to reasonable rest, recreation and leisure; and the right to social security, that is to say to public assistance in cases of undeserved want arising from unemployment, illness or disablement, or suffered by widows or orphans or in old age, or in other such cases.”
The declaration of Social Justice Day on 20th February is an example of the UN System's on-going efforts to promote and secure global buy-in to Social Justice. Given, the national commitment outlined above, and the demonstrable actions of successive governments here in Bangladesh to put these principles into action, I am very positive about the place of social justices as corner stone of development thinking in this country. This has been maintained in the current government's Vision 2021 and is operationalised in the Outline Perspective Plan and the Sixth Five Year Plan. We are not merely seeking middle income status but equity and social inclusion! It is fair to say that pro-poor thinking is hardwired in Bangladesh: the challenge is to modernise and strengthen this policy orientation.
The adoption by the International Labour Organization of the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization was the catalyst for the creation of Social Justice Day. This declaration focuses on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all, through employment, social protection, social dialogue, and fundamental principles and rights at work. Drawing on this, I would highlight that social protection is a key policy consideration for Bangladesh. However, prior to this I also want to emphasise the wider work of the UN System here, Bangladesh, in enabling the realisation of social justice.
The United Nations has a long history in this country of supporting development and improving human welfare and dignity. Our work has assisted national actors to deliver cradle to grave support across the human life cycle, alongside giving assistance and advice on effective and fair governance, and on secure on-going improvements in prosperity and reductions in poverty. In the social sphere, this has included combating maternal and infant mortality, supporting children's development via better education and health, targeting improved food security and nutrition, facilitating better livelihoods through employment reform, social protection and skills development, building resilience to natural disasters, and in assisting effective population management. Our work in the field of governance has also sought to ensure social provisioning is centre stage in policymaking, decision making is evidence-based and the exercise of law is non-discriminatory. Many of our current big programmes -- in the urban sector, in schooling and child welfare, in skills training, in the domestic and overseas labour market, in building adaptation to climate change, and in securing better nutrition outcomes, supports the country to push the envelope in achieving social justice in the fastest possible time.
The result of strong partnerships between the government and development partners are plain to see in the facts and figures of Bangladesh's developmental history. Over the last 10 to 15 years alone, poverty has fallen from just short of 50% of the population to just over 30. Bangladesh is on-track or close to achieving the vast majority of its Millennium Development Goals. Within the social goals, strong performance is still more striking. This country has rightly been globally recognised for its exceptional achievements on child mortality, receiving a UN award in 2010, and commended for the turn around on the maternal mortality goal, which was initially lagging. While there is still work to be done, for example on the environmental targets and nutrition, the overall position is very positive.
I now move to the question of social protection reform, which lies at the heart of securing social justice, especially during a time of transformational economic change. As Bangladesh moves towards middle income status, an effective system of social security and transfer payments will be a crucial dimension to ensure economic development continues apace and that it remains equitable. It also sits at the nexus of making progress on a broader development agenda -- encompassing health and nutrition outcomes, resilience to shocks and access to livelihood opportunities. In essence, social protection is a form of collective insurance, a hedge against risks and contingencies that individuals and families face throughout their lives. A sound social protection system provides both safety nets and social ladders, underwriting economic opportunities and securing basic welfare levels. Programmes to support pregnant women and new mothers, early years of children, vulnerable adults, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly, are vital. They provide access to key capabilities -- education, health and livelihoods -- which promote people's well-being. In turn there are macro level gains to be realised, including improved and productivity economic growth, a fair distribution of resources and management of income inequality and improved social cohesion.
Bangladesh has long recognised the importance of social protection, and the potential contribution it makes to equitable development. Moreover, these programmes have a special resonance for this country, given the level of vulnerability accruing from exposure to environmental and climatic risks. Today the government is spending around 15% of its revenue budget equivalent to around 2% of national GDP on social transfers and allowances. This is a major resource commitment and I would like to commend the government. Additionally, Bangladesh has pioneered many innovations in this field -- including the educational stipend allowances targeted on school attendance, a focus on poverty graduation and the building of resilience and a system to respond to environmental and climatic shocks.
However, the system has many weaknesses. The number of programmes has proliferated and there is some degree of administrative fragmentation, with over 80 schemes being delivered by more than 20 ministries. Both coverage and targeting have been weak, and too large a proportion of the benefits do not reach the intended, most needy recipients. Most significantly, the system is not well-attuned to the rapidly changing nature of Bangladesh --i.e. major forces in play such as industrialisation, urbanisation and mass-migration. These pose enormous consequences for social and economic change in the coming years. The pattern of spending is rather too dominated by relief-type programmes focused on disaster response. While there were and remain, very good reasons for this focus, the system needs to evolve to meet new needs and build-in resilience to shocks as well as offering direct responses.
If Bangladesh is to secure middle income status on the basis of social equity and inclusion, then a modern social protection system is a prerequisite. Learning from other low middle income countries, this would involve the adoption of a series of technical and practical innovations, and a move to a life-cycle approach based on a mixed system of entitlements and targeted benefits. I do however recognise that this must be a phased transition.
Alongside major development partners, the UN system in Bangladesh has been assisting the government to make necessary changes at both the strategic and delivery levels. Taking policy reform first, 2011, we jointly hosted an international conference on social protection and this closed with a commitment from the government to develop a National Social Protection Strategy. This process is now underway under the leadership of the Planning Commission and overseen by an inter-ministerial committee. We are actively supporting these efforts, and alongside government, we are keen that the process is open and inclusive. Later in the year, Government will be consulting with key stakeholders and I encourage as many interests groups as possible to participate in this. As follow-on we are also working with Government and major donors, to develop a longer term policy project to undertake systemic and line ministry reforms. This would seek to reshape Bangladeshi social protection to meet the challenges of the 21st century. These efforts are taking place alongside on-going research and advocacy works in a number of fields, most notably a series of system appraisals and state of the art research on transfer modalities and delivering better nutritional outcomes.
Second, at the delivery level, UN agencies alongside partners, and a variety of major government counterparts, continue to work on the ground to improve the delivery of social protection programmes to the poor and vulnerable. These efforts have included schemes like the highly rated Rural Employment Opportunities for Public Assets (REOPA) project delivered to destitute woman in rural areas, and the array of schemes to ensure food security supported by the World Food Programme. These major interventions also form part of the greater effort underway to secure a modern social protection system fit for the next stage of Bangladesh's development. These activities are vital as they allow for innovation and draw in global experience.
In closing, I want again to reiterate the thinking of the General Assembly in designating the 20th February as Social Justice Day: to advocate for broadly based and inclusive development, founded on the promotion of human dignity and the principle non-discrimination. These tenets are central to the philosophy of Bangladesh's establishment in 1971 and national commitment is evidenced by the long-running record of achievement and commitment to social justice. Yet I must also caution that the coming years and decades will see very dramatic changes in the nature and shape of the Bangladeshi economy, and, in turn, in Bangladeshi society. While this period will be challenging it also offers up opportunities for the country to craft the future it wants -- one of prosperity alongside equity and social cohesion. I underline that effective and improved social protection is a major part of the longer term policy response. I am encouraged by the government's overall commitment to reform and its particular openness on this very key issue. Our joint task now is to make this so.
Neal Walker is United Nations Resident Coordinator for Bangladesh.
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