Experts in Social Development Commission Highlight Protection Gaps, Structural Inequities, as Delegates Detail Efforts to Build Back Stronger from COVID-19
‘The Truth Is, We Are Worried,’ Says United Nations Official for Latin America, Caribbean, Citing Global Asymmetry in Provision of Vaccines
The Commission for Social Development continued its 2022 session today, seeking ideas from Governments and United Nations experts alike about the best ways to combat poverty and hunger and — in the pandemic’s third year — get back on track to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In the morning, the Commission — a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council — held a high-level panel discussion with development experts on emerging issues, examining how national policies and measures are helping to combat poverty and hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic and how States can promote inclusive and equitable recovery.
“Capacities, systems and policies are important prerequisites for finance, during and in the recovery from the pandemic,” panellist Megumi Muto, Vice‑President at the Japan International Cooperation Agency remarked, summing up the importance of a focus on resilience. Among the other lessons learned, panellist Stephen Devereux, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, drew attention to “the missing middle” group of people who lacked protection, yet who were worst affected by lockdowns. He recommended expanding coverage to informal workers and other excluded groups, as well as increasing the benefits paid by social assistance programmes.
During the afternoon, high-level United Nations officials from regional commissions, funds, programmes and agencies engaged with delegates in an interactive dialogue, sharing insights gleaned from efforts to connect United Nations norms and guidance with national actions on the ground. They highlighted lessons learned and showcased successful policies and measures, with a view to assisting Member States get back on track to achieving the 2030 Agenda.
The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 10 February, to continue its sixtieth session.
This morning, the Commission for Social Development held a virtual panel discussion titled “Emerging issues: National policies and measures implemented by Member States to combat hunger and poverty in times of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Challenges to get on track towards the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda”.
The discussion — moderated by Rolph van der Hoeven, Member of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy and Emeritus Professor of Employment and Development Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University in the Netherlands — featured the presentations by: Stephan Cueni, Ambassador and Vice-Director of the Federal Social Insurance Office of Switzerland; Marisol Merquel, President of the National Council for the Coordination of Social Policies of Argentina; Stephen Devereux, Research Fellow and Founding Director of the Center for Social Protection at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex; and Megumi Muto, Vice‑President at the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Mr. VAN DER HOEVEN said the socioeconomic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been immense. Richer countries were better able to take economic stimulus measures than least developed and emerging countries, many of which also did not have access to necessary vaccines, threatening a full, global economic and social recovery. Noting that nearly 20 per cent of global stimulus packages were spent on social protection measures, he said cash transfer measures are now frequently used. Existing social protection programmes were expanded in scale and offered to new beneficiaries. Unemployment insurance schemes meanwhile provided a significant and rapid response, while digital technologies supported the identification and enrolment of beneficiaries. Now that the pandemic appears to be receding, an import question is around whether these new programmes will lead to permanently better social security systems.
Mr. CUENI said Switzerland is a decentralized country, with most social protection programmes implemented regionally and locally. In many countries, poverty means having no place to live and no money to sustain livelihood. In Switzerland, being poor means one does not earn enough to support a family, pay for health insurance, have decent housing or cover a visit to the dentist. Poverty in Switzerland mainly affects single-parent families and people with low education. People are more exposed to the risk of poverty when working part-time, when self-employed, holding a fixed-term contract or employed in a small business. Women are overrepresented in these categories. Another issue is that some people do not use the services to which they are entitled. They may be ashamed to ask for support or confused about bureaucratic processes. While this phenomenon receives less attention than the misuse of benefits, it has a real impact and undermines the effectiveness of public policies. Indeed, it is “a great paradox” that a system designed to integrate can generate exclusion. Noting that the national anti-poverty platform for the 2019-2024 period has prioritized the participation of people affected by poverty, he said interested institutions in Switzerland will now be able to support participatory projects and adopt a participatory approach.
Ms. MERQUEL said Argentina attaches great importance to planning and predictability, noting that many short-term measures were taken during the pandemic, including health‑care responses and programmes that addressed the economy. The Government currently is working with international organizations. All ministries share the fundamental policy pillars of extending the health network across the country; strengthening food assistance; sustaining income, employment and production; and strengthening the social protection system. For instance, 12 emergency hospitals were constructed and more beds were made available in the intensive care units. Argentina also increased the budget for food assistance — which was implemented through a food card programme and the operation of community dining rooms — and supported family income, employment and production as a way to stabilize the situation. She highlighted the strategic and coordination role of the National Council in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, noting that “as we move towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, we want to involve all”.
Ms. MUTO said that under the vision of human security, the Agency’s efforts centre on resilience. “Capacities, systems and policies are important prerequisites for finance, during and in the recovery from the pandemic,” she said. Given the immediate need to strengthen health systems and financially support countries battling the pandemic’s fallout, the Agency, in June 2020, launched the Initiative for Global Health and Medicine, partnering with Ghana, Kenya and Viet Nam around three pillars: prevention, precaution and treatment — and is now covering more than 100 hospitals globally. The Agency also expanded financial assistance through the COVID-19 Crisis Response Emergency Support Loans, lending $33 billion. To support nutrition, the Agency’s Nutrition Declaration outlines 10 commitments to realize human security, and in the area of education, support was extended to minimize the loss of education using television and radio. In the area of agriculture, activities ranged from research on COVID-19’s impact in various localities, to nutrition and food assistance, to restructuring supply chains. As the “ecosystem” of mobilizing private financing for development is growing fast, the Agency also has committed to mobilize $15 billion as part of the “G7 2X Challenge”, investing in women-owned businesses in Mexico, Georgia, India and elsewhere.
Mr. DEVEREUX, outlining lessons learned from the pandemic, highlighted the value of having comprehensive, well-functioning social protection programmes in place. During the pandemic, these programmes were mobilized to deliver short-term relief to millions of people whose livelihoods were temporarily compromised by lockdowns. “Shock-responsive” modalities included vertical expansion — meaning that existing beneficiaries received higher benefits for the duration of lockdowns — and horizontal expansion, meaning that additional beneficiaries were registered temporarily on existing social protection programmes. It is equally important to have systems in place for managing social protection programmes, especially platforms for identifying, registering and making payments to beneficiaries. Finally, COVID-19 exposed huge social protection gaps across the world, most significantly in terms of coverage. He drew attention to “the missing middle” group of people who lacked protection, yet who were worst affected by lockdowns. In the short term, he recommended expanding coverage to informal workers and other excluded groups, as well as increasing the benefits paid by social assistance programmes. In the longer-term, he recommended strengthening national social protection systems, notably by advancing a rights-based approach, and transitioning towards digitized processes, such as computer-based registration and management of beneficiaries.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates and civil society representatives expanded on measures undertaken by their countries to tackle poverty and hunger, as well as bridge the digital divide.
The representative of Portugal outlined programmes introduced as part of his country’s pandemic recovery plan, including interventions to alleviate poverty in metropolitan areas such as Lisbon and Porto, as well as programmes to promote social cohesion and local entrepreneurship, and provide vocational training, which contribute to realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. He asked about the main challenges faced by countries to get back on track on implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The youth representative of Italy, noting that less than 10 years remained to eradicate hunger and poverty, as part of the 2030 Agenda, called on all Member States to implement long-term measures, including multidimensional analytical tools, to address the problem. She emphasized the role young people can play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, noting that they are attuned to real needs on the ground. She asked about policies that should be implemented to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
The youth delegate of Switzerland said that, while the pandemic saw many countries transition to distance learning, a third of the global population still lacks Internet access. She called for training for young people on the risks and advantages of using digital platforms, as young people and minors are not always aware of its dangers, which include harassment and theft.
The representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, noted that a policy framework was put in place in 2017 to address poverty as part of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which contains ambitious principles and rights for fair and well-functioning labour markets, among other areas. In 2021, the bloc introduced an action plan which commits its member States to reduce the number of people living in poverty — including 5 million children — by 2030. She asked which population groups should be targeted by national policies and measures to combat hunger and poverty.
The representative of the Dominican Republic outlined agricultural measures undertaken to tackle hunger and poverty during the pandemic, including those to increase post-harvest value, and “zero kilometre” supply programmes. The Government also has introduced a “Zero Hunger” programme, which includes subsidies, credits and a digital system enabling the indication of production.
The representative of Cuba emphasized the role of States in providing welfare, outlining a series of measures his country has taken to enhance food security amid the pandemic, including subsidies. These efforts ensure that food is available at accessible prices. Cuba also has vaccinated 9 million people, despite the blockade imposed by the United States, which has affected its ability to combat poverty and hunger.
A speaker from Soroptimist International said that “building forward better” provides a unique opportunity for countries to restructure to ensure the impacts of the pandemic are not long-lasting. She emphasized the need for enhanced investment in education and training, as well as strengthened social protection systems, and asked about steps that can be taken to ensure sustainable food systems for all.
A speaker from the Haiti Cholera Research Funding Foundation pointed out that the pandemic has increased food insecurity, which disproportionately affects Hispanic households and has also led to a rise in Latino unemployment. She asked about steps that can be taken to eliminate hunger and poverty among low-income Hispanic migrants.
The representative of China said digital tools, such as 5G-enabled temperature measurement, have contributed to reducing risks faced by medical personnel. Noting that 300 million people in rural areas can access the Internet, he pointed to the vast and expanding digital gap between developing and developed countries, and asked how developing countries can be provided digital access.
Ms. MERQUEL said that as an emergency measure, a law was adopted in 2021, with special allocations to help Argentina deal with the socioeconomic challenges thrown up by the pandemic. These allocations were extended to small and medium‑sized enterprises and helped to fund several programmes, notably to promote women’s rights and strengthen housing access. Food cards were also provided for those in need, she said, adding that State coordination helped increase the number of such measures.
Mr. CUENI said measures to tackle poverty must be targeted towards groups living in poverty or threatened by poverty, such as single-parent households and those who are unable to find work. He called for preventive measures and for sufficient social protections systems to be put in place to help vulnerable groups, including disabled people and part-time workers.
Ms. MUTO outlined policies undertaken in partner countries to increase domestic resources to provide universal health services, including those to enhance the efficiency of tax collection in Senegal and Cambodia. Responding to a question on expanding access to information and communications technology (ICT), she said that such tools had greatly helped health systems, in particular, for telemedicine, human resource management and drug supply chains. The role of such technology will increase as governance systems begin to use them more frequently.
Mr. DEVEREUX said austerity measures undermine gains made in creating inclusive social protection. These gains must be consolidated, rather than eroded. Citing the instance of a special relief grant for working-age populations in South Africa, which ends in March, he pointed to a campaign to convert it to a permanent measure. Young people are often left out from social protection systems, but they need protection, he said, expressing hope that they will mobilize around such issues. He called for policies to target the uncovered, unemployed and working poor, as well as small farmers and women seasonal farm workers. Further, low-income migrants, internally displaced persons and refugees must be covered by social protection systems.
Dialogue with Senior United Nations Officials
In the afternoon, the Commission held a virtual interactive dialogue with senior United Nations officials on the priority theme “Inclusive and resilient recovery from COVID-19 for sustainable livelihoods, well-being and dignity for all: eradicating poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions to achieve the 2030 Agenda”.
Moderated by Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the dialogue featured exchanges with Mario Cimoli, Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); Mounir Tabet, Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA); Máximo Torero, Chief Economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); Åsa Regnér, Deputy Executive Director for Policy, Programme, Civil Society and Intergovernmental Support at the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women); and Beate Andrees, Special Representative and Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Ms. SPATOLISANO, opening the dialogue, said the United Nations system has been supporting Member States in their response to COVID-19 and its socioeconomic impact. While the Department is focused on analysis and provision of policy support to intergovernmental bodies, she said regional commissions, funds, programmes and specialized agencies have played a critical role in connecting this guidance with national actions on the ground. In this interactive dialogue, high‑level United Nations officials will share their insights and expertise, and exchange views with delegates on how best to support Government efforts to get back on track to achieve the 2030 Agenda.
Mr. CIMOLI said the Latin American and Caribbean region’s economy grew 6.2 per cent in 2021, after contracting by 6.8 per cent in 2020. Employment has been recovering, but unemployment has disproportionately affected women. Poverty and inequalities in the region widened. Despite being a great producer of food, the region continues to suffer food insecurity, with 40 per cent of the population facing food insecurity. This rate is 70 per cent in the Caribbean. Vulnerable groups, including children, are the hardest hit. While the economy has rebounded, structural problems remain unaddressed, such as tax and financing schemes, and the marginalization of informal-sector workers. The main question is around how to improve these conditions in efforts to achieve development.
Mr. TABET said ESCWA covers 20 of 22 Arab countries. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the region’s growth rate was 3 per cent on average, with Libya, Djibouti and Egypt leading the way at 9.9 per cent, 7.5 per cent and 5.5 per cent growth respectively. Extreme poverty stood at 5.8 per cent in 2019. The region was already notorious for inequality, with the top 10 per cent of earners accounting for 60 per cent of national income in some countries. The official unemployment rate was 8.1 per cent, but jumped to 18.6 per cent among women and 23.1 per cent among youth. The health system is fragmented; 15 million students are out of school and only half of the households have a computer. Some 87 million people lack access to drinking water. Turning to gender inequality, he said women spend five times more time in unpaid work than men, the highest among all regions. He described State responses to the effects of COVID-19 as “shy”, noting that Arab countries spent only 4 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on stimulus packages, compared with 22.5 per cent by European countries; 65 per cent of the Arab population is not covered by any form of social protection.
Mr. TORERO said the world economy contracted by 3.4 per cent in 2020, with a 6.4 per cent decline for the Latin American and Caribbean region. Rebounds have been uneven, partly due to disparity in access to COVID-19 vaccines. Global GDP remains below the pre-pandemic level. Underscoring the importance of international cooperation and solidary in this context, he said extreme poverty rose for the first time in decades, with an estimated 97 million more people falling into poverty in 2020 due to COVID-19. South Asia accounted for 58 per cent of the new poor, with sub-Saharan Africa at 23 per cent. Global hunger also shot up in 2020. Food insecurity was on the rise even before COVID‑19, with 1 in 3 lacking access to adequate food. Inequality increased, hitting vulnerable groups hardest. The world is far from turning the corner in poverty eradication, he stressed.
Ms. REGNÉR pointed out that women, especially those with small children, have become more disadvantaged in the labour force during COVID-19, and women have taken on even more unpaid care work. Citing UN-Women’s surveys in 13 countries, she noted that nearly 50 per cent of women reported that they or a woman they know has experienced a form of violence since the onset of the pandemic. The number of women and girls in poverty could reach close to 450 million by end of 2022. “Out of 18 indicators for Goal 5, only one indicator — the proportion of seats held by women in local government — is ‘close to target’,” she said. Expressing her disappointment that the global policy response to COVID-19 has been male‑dominated, she recalled some best practices of many countries, including a strong response to violence against women. Brazil, Chile, South Africa and Togo in particular made efforts to close gaping holes in social protection systems through measures including cash transfers. Kenya and Senegal have also launched public procurement programmes to offer support to the livelihoods of women small‑scale producers in times of crisis.
Ms. ANDREES, providing an overview of available data, said ILO findings corroborate the current gloomy landscape, with some bright spots. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on employment, with 255 million lost jobs and a slow recovery. In 2022, there will be around 200 million unemployed, with some States unable to develop stimulus measures, as well as others. A growing positive trend sees legal measures enacted to formalize care work. In terms of social protection, the crisis has put a spotlight on deficits, as more than 4 billion people are still not protected by such measures. The situations differ by region, with better conditions in Europe and “very discouraging” landscapes in Africa and the Arab States. Social protection measures reveal that unemployment and sickness benefits are very limited: the vast majority of children still do not receive any child or family benefits, with some being pushed into the workforce, while the majority of women do not have maternity benefits. About 3,860 social protection measures are being enacted worldwide, however some are not gender-responsive and risks being rolled back. Countries can take the high road towards social protection which will support economic development when combined with jobs, or the low road, which will increase poverty and suffering, she explained.
Mr. CIMOLI underlined the importance of examining how the United Nations works to address the current situation. Structural conditions must be considered to truly achieve multilateralism. Recalling that the panorama across regions reflects the same or worsened conditions, he wondered how best to correct conditions through multilateralism and the United Nations.
In the ensuing interactive dialogue, the representative of Cuba sought more detail about the role of ECLAC in helping States to end poverty and establish a new development model.
The representative of the Dominican Republic said her country launched post‑pandemic recovery projects based on training and capacity‑building, and is making efforts to close the gap between the formal and informal sectors. One such measure is to allow older persons to take part in community jobs. Cuba also created a tool to measure multidimensional vulnerability, analysing which groups could potentially fall into poverty, due to natural disasters and other factors.
The representative of Portugal asked the panelist from UN-Women to share good practices for empowering women in poverty and hunger reduction efforts, and the panelist from FAO to share examples of synergies between measures to eradicate poverty and hunger.
The representative of Argentina asked panelists to describe ways to ensure the holistic approach within the United Nations system to address poverty and hunger. Stressing the importance of rules set by the World Trade Organization (WTO), she sought specific examples of how food systems have demonstrated resilience.
The panellists then discussed the way forward, sharing insights on strategies for an inclusive and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic to get back on track to fully implement the 2030 Agenda.
Mr. CIMOLI, responding to several queries, said pre-pandemic welfare systems and policies existed with asymmetries for less developed countries in such areas as technology and taxation. These asymmetries — revealed by COVID-19 — show that developed States have policies reaching millions of people, whereas other countries do not. It is clear that State policies are vital, as can be seen in Europe and the United States, playing a fundamental role in multilateralism. In the absence of such policies, some States must focus on enhancing their economies and productive structures. Meanwhile, multilateral actors must focus on how to resolve these asymmetries through, for instance, industrial policies for small and medium-sized businesses to increase the number of jobs or measures to enhance progressive taxation. Different States need different policies, but the world needs a multilateral policy itself, he said. Countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region needed vaccines, identifying a need for technology transfers and deciding how best to proceed. While many of the “rules” are in place as before the pandemic, many countries are now being left aside. The State must work with the market to ensure vaccine delivery, with the multilateral system taking on its own role in this regard. A debate on how wealth is generated, and other related measures, is essential to better address the challenges the pandemic has brought to the forefront, he said.
Mr. TABET said there is a historical opportunity to transform the global economy to bring about social equity and employment, in line with the Secretary‑General’s call for a new social contract. ESCWA has put forth 14 policy briefs and 163 recommendations to bring about a resilient recovery in the region, which includes a solidarity tax, building on the region’s cultural traditions of helping the neighbour, which was well-received. However, these recommendations must be accompanied by economic growth and reforms. ESCWA also recommends expanding the social financing base through progressive taxation, and recently adopted a statement to help countries advance the idea of leaving no one behind. Further, the 100 million children who are out of school and half-learning must be reintegrated. On gender, ESCWA has been doing its part to promote protections for victims of domestic violence, and ensure social protection coverage for women of all ages, he said, adding that, unfortunately, there is a need in the region for special laws protecting against child marriage. On water scarcity, ESCWA is calling for the privatization of accessible safe drinking water and for water conservation.
Mr. TORERO said there was a massive increase in social protection investments since the start of the pandemic, which helped mitigate its impact. Total spending on these investments was estimated at 3 per cent of global GDP — 4.5 times higher than during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. However, he pointed out that the duration of most programmes was short and there was a large disparity between countries, with some States unable to create the fiscal space for these programmes, due in part to public and private indebtedness. The crisis demonstrated the need for improved resilience, through early warning systems and insurance mechanisms, as well as in terms of coping with shocks. It also exposed challenges and gaps of three dimensions: the types of risks that were covered; how adequately they were covered; and who is covered. He called for a consolidated and expanded social protection system, and pointed out that an inclusive recovery will require bold measures to support the rural sector, especially in low-income countries and in fragile contexts. As well, it is essential to increase agricultural productivity through government investment.
Responding to questions, Mr. TORERO said there must be a systematic approach to reducing hunger and poverty, adding that the two goals “move together, even though the numbers won’t move together”. Such actions have trade-offs and breaking siloes will help. Further, he pointed out that moving forward on transformational pathways could empower United Nations coordination across agencies, which must work to create synergies, and complement one another’s roles.
Ms. REGNÉR, turning first to jobs and livelihoods, called for targeted measures to ensure that women are not left behind in COVID-19 recovery, notably by helping them regain the jobs they have lost, improving job quality in the informal sector and investing in gender-responsive social protection systems, for example through well-designed cash‑transfer programmes and training and support to access new jobs in green sectors. On care, public investment in the care economy must be a main pillar of economic recovery and poverty‑reduction efforts, to support women’s re-entry into the labour force, the well-being of children and older people and the creation of decent work. Investments in the sector are estimated to create 40 to 60 per cent more jobs than the same investments in construction. She went on to call for an economic transition to achieve environmental sustainability and to advance social and gender goals at the same time. She also highlighted innovative approaches led by women leaders in local communities to promote gender-just transitions, for example, in sustainable energy in Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. She affirmed the need for a new global social contract and unprecedented levels of global cooperation and solidarity, underlining the imperative to reshape the global economic architecture based on human rights and gender equality, in particular, by building a fair and equitable international trade and financial regime.
Ms. ANDREES, responding to questions and co-panellists’ remarks, underscored the need to link social protections with employment‑creation, and to ensure the labour market integration of women. Gender-sensitive measures are key, she said, noting that a global report launched by ILO cited many suggestions of solutions. Turning to stimulus measures, she said that, while there have been significant measures which were maintained, there is now a risk of rolling them back. On taxation, she underscored the importance of helping countries create fiscal space. Highlighting the ILO Global Accelerator for Jobs and Social Protection, she said a forum will be convened later this month to focus on how the Accelerator can be supported by ILO member States and others.
In the ensuing discussion, the representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, said States must act consciously to reduce inequalities, which calls for an integrated approach. European Union member States commit to working to bring about a sustainable and resilient economic and social recovery, she said, before posing a question on how United Nations agencies can improve cooperation to address shared challenges on poverty and hunger.
Mr. CIMOLI said the pandemic demonstrated the importance for strong policies at the multilateral level, and for coordination among agencies; with FAO on food supply, with UN-Women on formal jobs, and with the ILO and other Commissions. “The truth is we’re worried,” he said, pointing to global asymmetry in the provision of vaccines, on which there was little effort to resolve multilaterally. He emphasized the need for more proactive policies in Latin America, citing the digital basket that everybody could have access to during the pandemic, which worked well, and called for dialogue on financing and access to technology.
Mr. TABET, responding, underscored the need for jobs, which entails better integration into the global economy. While there is a historic opportunity for a resilient recovery, he said it is not clear the political will is still there, pointing to the lack of solidarity during the pandemic, with countries moving fast to vaccinate their own citizens first. Solidarity is needed in addressing the pandemic, and in addressing unemployment, without which “we all pay a price”, he stressed.
Mr. TORERO stressed the need for a reduction in inequality, adding that “what one country does impacts another”. Economies that can recover have a negative effect on those with less resources to do so, he observed.
Ms. REGNÉR emphasized the need to invest in childcare, to liberate parents to take up paid work, and in parental schemes to look after toddlers, with incentives for fathers to do so. Moreover, investments also must be made in elderly care, which falls on women’s shoulders to an unsustainable extent.
Ms. ANDREES called for the creation of green jobs and pointed to the care economy as a way to build more sustainable societies.