Advancing the Social Protection Agenda in Ethiopia: an interview with the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs (MoLSA) Quarterly Bulletin
MoLSA: Just for our readers understanding, what does social protection mean?
Amdissa: Support given to citizens that are vulnerable to various economic and social shocks is generally considered as social protection. The support may be given by individuals, community, institutions or government. However, social protection needs to be coordinated and this needs a policy direction from the government. When we say vulnerable groups, this is not a static concept. People who are strong and can work today may become vulnerable tomorrow for various reasons including disability, loss of income and asset. These people, if they are left to their own devises may engage in socially unacceptable activities leading to social crisis. Therefore, there is a need for social protection system that could mitigate against all these potential problems.
MoLSA: Can you give us a brief historical background to social protection?
Amdissa: It is inevitable that in a social environment people face various problems and difficulties, which are sometimes beyond the individual or community capability and require external intervention. By external, I mean not necessarily foreign aid but from relatives, local institutions and government. So, the emergence of social protection is a combination of the inevitability of shocks and the necessity of assistance. In the old days, most of the shocks were absorbed by traditional support mechanisms including extended families and traditional institutions. These are still functional but the magnitude of the problem is such that we can’t rely on these institutions entirely. Social protection will gradually become formal – planned and integrated. This is what happened in today’s developed countries.
MoLSA: Are there countries that have overcome their problems through social protection?
Amdissa: Formal social protection goes back over hundred years. Countries like Germany and France started it in the 19th century at a time when they had lots of poor people. The British had special laws for protecting the poor as early as the 16th century. But their famous National Health Service that guaranteed each and every citizen a “decent” health service was introduced immediately following the WWII. Within Africa, South Africa may be sited as an example for using social protection to tackle poverty. So, there are a number of examples of addressing poverty through social protection. There is no blueprint. Each country must design a social protection mechanism that is most suited to its situation.
MoLSA: What is the status of social protection globally?
Amdissa: Countries that were poor hundreds of years ago have used social protection to break intergenerational poverty. Social protection is not all about transfers. It is a whole package of benefits that spans the life a citizen – ensuring decent health service, education, employment, and providing social insurance as and when citizens need it. This shift in thinking another expression of its development.
MoLSA: Some say social protection can accelerate growth and development and bring equitable distribution of wealth. Can you say something in this?
Amdissa: It is true. Social protection allows those who can work and create wealth to focus on wealth creation. It also creates a system whereby those who are unable to contribute to wealth, either temporarily or permanently, share from the nation’s wealth. Systems will also be in place to allow those temporally out work to acquire the necessary skills and go back to work. Where there is equitable distribution of wealth, it is easier to mobilise citizens for collective action, peace, stability, good governance and social justice are institutionalised. These are incentives for citizens to contribute to an integrated and sustainable social protection.
MoLSA: What is the status of social protection in our country?
Amdissa: Ethiopia is a pioneer not a beginner in this field. It is one of the first countries in Africa to institutionalise a contributory pension scheme in the early 1960s. This system remained narrow in scope and coverage. Currently, Ethiopia is implementing the largest safety net programme for millions of chronically food insecure rural population. This is also part of social protection.
MoLSA: If Ethiopia continues to improve and expand social protection, what do you think are the social problems and vulnerabilities that would be addressed?
Amdissa: There is a lot of evidence that Ethiopia is enjoying unprecedented economic growth. However, there are millions who are unable to take full advantage of this growth. These include the elderly with no support, the chronically ill, this with physical and mental illness, and orphans and vulnerable children. Some of these are engaged in socially unacceptable activities such as begging, scavenging, stealing and living on the streets. Social protection agenda allows us to understand the depth and breadth of these problems and design strategies that we can all rally behind. Strong social protection will gradually eliminate these vulnerabilities. As I said earlier, it is not all about direct transfers but a equipping citizens with the skills they need to be productively employable, it is about building citizens confidence to enable them take/mange risk.
MoLSA: Ethiopia has established a social protection platform that will contribute to establishing a social protection system. How do you see this development?
Amdissa: It is clear that social protection is not to be left to just government or a few institutions. That is why a platform is established consisting of all stakeholders. Its objective is to ensure that social protection features in all government endeavours. It provides evidence-based advice on social protection. Members feel ownership of this agenda. It is an opportunity for government to use these resources effectively. When we implement social protection in an integrated manner, there is chance that leakage will be minimised. I am confident that our human development index will also improve.
MoLSA: Any message for our readers regarding social protection?
Amdissa: First of all, I appreciate the attention the government has recently given to social protection. I hope that all concerned will contribute to the realisation of a long tern social protection system for Ethiopia!
MoLSAL Thank you for your time!
Amdissa: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my view on this timely agenda!
Interview: November 2010 (above is an unofficial translation)