Inequality and Social Protection

Challenges and Opportunities

Despite high and enduring economic growth and significant progress in terms of poverty eradication, inequality persists in the Asia-Pacific region, and in some instances has intensified. Growing disparities in income and wealth, as well as unequal opportunities, reinforce each other creating an “inequality trap” that disproportionately affects women and the most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, youth, persons with disabilities, older persons and migrants.

Recent data for Asia-Pacific suggests that in the last 20 years, the rich have gotten richer at the expense of the poor. In countries where income inequality did not rise, it remained at very high levels. Inequalities in opportunities also abound in the region with nearly 80 per cent of the region’s population excluded from affordable health care and as many as 18 million children out of school. ESCAP studies also confirm that access to health care and education are significantly lower among rural communities and low-income groups.

Against this backdrop, policymakers in the region have acknowledged that social protection – government transfers of income or services such as health care, education and labour market programmes that are designed to reduce vulnerability and build resilience – can play a key role in tackling inequality traps.

Social protection is anchored in the universal rights of everyone to social security, and to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their families. These rights are prescribed within Articles 22 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Social protection is also anchored in articles 9, 11, 12 and 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1979). The core idea is that no one should live below a certain income level and everyone should at least have access to basic social services.

In addition to fulfilling basic social and economic rights and reducing inequalities, social protection provides a solid foundation for the realization of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Social protection contributes to inclusive growth by enhancing human capital and productive assets; counters social exclusion by promoting solidarity and social integration; and promotes environmental sustainability through livelihood diversification and natural resource management.

Despite the region’s remarkable economic progress and the growing recognition of the importance of social protection, critical social protection coverage gaps exist in the region. Only 30 per cent of persons above the retirement age receive an old-age pension. Only 10 per cent of the unemployed receive any benefits. And only 30 per cent of all persons with disabilities have enough income for self-support. In addition, over 1 billion people are employed in the informal sector and lack basic social protection; and so too do the large majority of migrants. Furthermore, 80 per cent of the population has no access to health-care assistance.

Our Response

In April 2009 the United Nations Chief Executive Board launched the Social Protection Floor (SPF) Initiative in response to the global financial and economic crisis. The SPF concept corresponds to a set of essential social services and transfers that everyone should enjoy to ensure the realisation of the rights embodied in human right treaties. The SPF provides a framework to plan progressive implementation of social protection systems, taking specific national contexts and conditions into account. As such, the SPF provides the guiding framework for ESCAP’s work in the area of social protection.

At the 67th Commission session in May 2011, members and associate members of ESCAP underscored the urgency of moving toward universal social protection coverage by adopting Resolution 67/8 on “Strengthening social protection systems in Asia and the Pacific.” This Resolution calls upon member States to “invest in building social protection systems that might form the basis of a ‘social protection floor’, which would offer a minimum level of access to essential services and income security for all, and subsequently enhancing the capacity for extension, according to national aspirations and circumstances.”

Furthermore, with the call of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to reach those furthest behind, addressing inequality and strengthening social protection systems are fundamental measures for achieving a prosperous, peaceful and sustainable future for all. Aside from being overarching priorities, reducing inequality features as a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal, whilst social protection is referred to directly in Goals 1 (poverty), 3 (health), 5 (gender equality), and 10 (inequality).

Our Work

ESCAP supports national and regional efforts by functioning as a knowledge platform for policymakers and stakeholders, and providing technical support to member States to reduce inequalities and strengthen relevant social protection initiatives.

Tackling inequalities in Asia and the Pacific: The role of social protection

In an effort to expand the evidence base in the area of redistributive policies, ESCAP has produced a publication which illustrates that social protection is an effective instrument to reduce inequalities, and by so doing, contributes to the integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. The publication, entitled, “Time for Equality: The Role of Social Protection in Reducing Inequalities in Asia and the Pacific" can be accessed here. In addition, research on social protection schemes was conducted in China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam.

Social Protection Toolbox

Launched in December 2013, the Social Protection Toolbox is an online advocacy platform that aims to cover existing gaps in the promotion and analysis of social protection. The Toolbox utilizes a database of over 100 good practices and a network of social protection experts to facilitate South-South cooperation as well to build consensus in moving forward toward broader and more robust coverage. A new, more user-friendly interface of the Toolbox has been developed in 2016, with additional good practices and features to encourage further strengthening of social protection systems throughout Asia-Pacific.

  • Online training module on social protection

With a view to complement the existing components of the Social Protection Toolbox, ESCAP plans to incorporate an online training module for policymakers and stakeholders on the importance of social protection for realizing sustainable development.

Interregional project on “Promoting Equality: Strengthening the capacity of selected developing countries to design and implement equality-oriented public policies and programmes”

This interregional project (2015-17) aims to strengthen countries’ capacities in the analysis and measurement of inequality, as well as in the conceptualization, design and implementation of multidisciplinary public policies oriented towards greater socio-economic equality, including through employment, social protection and access to social services. The activities will focus on a combination of knowledge building, knowledge sharing and knowledge management, as well as through advisory services and training.

Under this project, ESCAP is currently working on a comprehensive analysis of inequality of opportunities in Asia and the Pacific, with a view to explore key dimensions and drivers as well as identify critical policy measures for the way forward.

Interregional project on “Time for equality: Strengthening the institutional framework of social policies”

The aim of this interregional project (2013-2016) is twofold: first, to enhance knowledge and cooperation on monitoring and evaluation of social protection schemes through the exchange of experiences and good practices among countries of Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Asia; and second, to strengthen the capacity of policymakers to build integrated and sustainable social protection systems.