The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for well-functioning social protection systems in the region as never before. A new UN report released Thursday reveals that despite their rapid socioeconomic ascent, most countries in the Asia-Pacific region have weak social protection systems riddled with gaps.
About half of the region’s population has no social protection coverage, according to the publication The Protection We Want: Social Outlook for Asia and the Pacific, jointly produced by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and International Labour Organization (ILO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Only a handful of countries have comprehensive social protection systems with relatively broad coverage.
“Comprehensive social protection creates the foundation for healthy societies and vibrant economies. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this imperative into sharp focus, by demonstrating the stabilizing effect well-functioning social protection systems have and how their absence exacerbates inequality and poverty,” said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana.
She added, “Delivering effective social protection to all people across our region is already shaping our approach, as we advocate combining short-term relief with longer-term strategies to build back better in the aftermath of the pandemic.”
The scope and scale of existing programs is still limited. Most poverty-targeted schemes are failing to reach the poorest families and the pandemic risks further reversing progress to eradicate poverty by almost a decade. Many countries are also facing high levels of inequality, both in outcomes and opportunities, which the pandemic has exacerbated. Population ageing, migration, urbanization, natural disasters and climate change, as well as technological advancements are further compounding these challenges.
The report identifies significant underinvestment as one of the main factors for the huge coverage gap. Excluding health, many countries in the region spend less than 2 per cent of GDP on social protection. This low level of investment in people stands in stark contrast to the global average of 11 per cent. Another key reason is the high prevalence of informal employment in the region, representing close to 70 per cent of all workers.
“The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the precarious situation of many working women and men and especially those in the informal economy. There is a clear need for further investment in public social protection systems if we are to avoid the stagnation of social and economic progress made across the region in recent decades,” said Ms Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, Regional Director ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Expanding social protection would have an immediate impact on reducing poverty, inequality and purchasing power disparities. For example, the proportion of households living in poverty would fall by up to 18 percentage points if governments were to offer basic child benefits, disability benefits and old-age pensions.
While the required investment of two to six per cent of GDP is significant, the report demonstrates that it is within the grasp of most countries. The report recommends governments to reprioritize existing resources, boost public revenues, tap into new technologies and embed social protection into national development strategies, underpinned by social dialogue.
The report was launched on the sidelines of the fifth Regional Conversation Series on Building Back Better. The high-level dialogue on “Social Protection: A Right for All, or A Privilege for a Few?”