Not just social security

PM K P Oli unveiled the contribution-based Social Security Scheme for formal workers amidst a program in Kathmandu last month. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

The Nepal government’s announcement of a social security scheme for formal sector workers this month has once again thrust social protection policy into the political spotlight. While such schemes can be important social policy instruments, significant concerns have been raised about this scheme and previous policies, particularly regarding government’s ability to fund and implement them.

Now more than ever, it is important that social protection policies and programs effectively address issues of marginalisation and vulnerability that undergird social insecurity and injustice.

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Marginalisation is deeply ingrained into Nepali social, economic, and political practice. Lines of exclusion across caste, gender, religion, geography have resulted in complex, multi-dimensional poverty. When poverty is entrenched over long periods of time vulnerability graduates from individuals and households to community and government levels. Ultimately, the cost of not addressing vulnerability is borne across society.

Vulnerability is exaggerated during times of instability, and in Nepal it is caused and exacerbated by politics, natural disasters, informality of labour and income, and so on. Vulnerable individuals suffer double jeopardy, and tend to enter a downward spiral of wretchedness if left unnoticed by government.

Governmental responses to vulnerability through social protection policies and programs have mirrored the trajectory of the country’s transformational politics. Social movements, government restructuring and changes to legal and constitutional frameworks have shaped how marginalisation and vulnerability are addressed.

Today, all major parties recognise the political value of adopting social protection elements into their policy platforms. Alongside the recognition of the political significance of social protection policies, there is also growing appreciation of the positive impact of these policies for the country’s development. Despite this, poor policy design impedes social protection efforts in Nepal.

It may be useful to analyse the effectiveness of Nepal’s social protection schemes by considering the following three design approaches:

  1. Equality-based approaches provide blanket security to the entire population. The best examples are many of the labour market regulations, which regulate working conditions, occupational safety, worker rights, and minimum wages.

Equality-based schemes assume that all people are alike and have the same needs. However, this assumption of homogeneity ignores the fact that some groups experience marginalisation and vulnerability more acutely than others.

  1. Equity-based schemes recognise varying types of vulnerability and marginalisation and employ targeted strategies of redressal. An example is Nepal’s Disability Grant, which targets persons with disabilities to ensure greater social inclusion and economic independence.

Most of the budgetary allocation in Nepal’s social protection portfolio is directed toward equity-based social assistance and allowance programs. This reflects the evolving political understanding of equality and equity: with policy shapers increasingly seeking to incorporate targeted instead of universal strategies. However, since Nepal’s universal schemes play a significant role in protecting the vulnerable, it is vital that the government pursues both equality-and equity-based strategies.

Equality- and equity-based approaches seek to address poverty and marginalisation. However, these social challenges are symptomatic of the underlying root problem of societal injustice. For durable effect, it is important that the root problem is targeted, not just symptomatic manifestations. It follows, therefore, that policies that limit themselves to equality and equity-based strategies are likely to be inadequate.

  1. A justice-based approach seeks to go beyond addressing economic marginalisation and vulnerability, and instead understand and confront social injustice. Social protection policies are but one tool that governments can use to address vulnerability and marginalisation, justice-based schemes are integrated with other programs to transform unequal social structures.

There is a decided gap in Nepal’s current social protection framework with respect to well-designed, justice-based schemes. However, there are some encouraging examples that show signs of progress from an equity-based to a justice-based approach in social protection policy.

The Emergency Cash Transfer Program,for example, leveraged the government’s existing social assistance registers and provided two cash transfers targeting the people who had likely been left most vulnerable after the 2015 earthquakes. What makes this program significant is that it was formally incorporated into the emergent Social Protection Framework of Nepal, which gives an otherwise isolated transfer program an integrated dimension.

Federalism and inclusive nation building introduced by the 2015 Constitution has set a decisive inflection point for addressing social injustice in Nepal. Not only are 31 fundamental rights constitutionally enshrined, Parliament has moved to enact legislation to apply them. The agenda to see social justice embedded throughout society is, at least in theory, a top priority for the government.

However, like other public policy initiatives in Nepal social protection has been historically constrained by inadequate policy design and poor integration, resourcing and implementation of policies by weak and incapable governments. This has significantly hindered the country’s ability to redress injustice through policy instruments such as social protection.

Fears surrounding the history of inadequate program implementation arose again last week after the announcement of the private sector social security scheme. The scheme is generous and consequently ambitious. Regardless of intent behind the announcement, the success of the program is contingent on how well it will be implemented. The costs involved are significant and the private sector has not reacted well to the potentially huge increase in wage burden. How the program will be financed remains an unanswered question.

As a social security scheme that will decidedly not benefit the informal sector, the majority of Nepal’s workforce, it is hard to see how this additional levy helps reduce injustice in society.

Josh Glover attends Melbourne University and interned at Niti Foundation in 2018.

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