Social policy: The issue
All South Asia’s governments have committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. This requires – and has mobilized - measurable investments in the most critical areas of human development – health, HIV/AIDS and nutrition, education, access to water and sanitation, gender equality, employment, and environmental sustainability and shelter. While significant strides have been achieved on many of these fronts during recent years, progress remains patchy. Social exclusion, violence and conflict, and natural disasters are tenacious obstacles across South Asia. Moreover, the global economic recession, compounding a complex financial and food price crisis, is exacerbating the region’s vulnerability and fragility and threatens to further undermine the chances of achieving the MDGs with equity. More and more sophisticated efforts are required in order to prevent a setback in MDG progress in the economically-challenging year to come.
Since the year 2000, noticeable strides have been made towards reaching the MDG goals and targets. However, even in the “high achiever” countries, and more so in countries lagging behind, the coverage and performance in MDGs varies considerably. Thus, of the 615 million children and young people under the age of 18 in South Asia, over half are deprived of basic necessities such as food, shelter, health, water and sanitation, education and information. In 2007, fifty-nine of every 1000 children born alive did not reach their first birthday and 78 of every 1000 children born alive died before age five. Forty-five percent of children under five years are underweight – 78 million - representing half of all underweight child population in the world. Moreover, malnutrition levels have not seen improvement in countries that carry the largest ‘burden’ of malnutrition, such as India. Though primary school enrolment has been rising, only 83% of girls compared to 88% of boys of the right age are enrolled in primary schools. Rates of completion of primary school are at 80%, which means that large numbers of children have diminished opportunities for decent livelihoods in increasingly knowledge-driven economies. Every year, more than 200,000 mothers die due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth – not because of poverty as such, but because of their rights and needs are not a priority, including in the family and community.
Systemic imbalances in the economy and the distribution of resources are structural obstacles to achieving the MDGs with equity in South Asia. Social exclusion is a key driver, and manifests as the exclusion of groups from entitlements and services, based on identities around gender, ethnicity, caste, religion, disability, HIV status, migrant status or dwelling place, and age. In South Asia, social exclusion is compounded by pervasive gender discrimination, and by the growing income and assets gaps between the rich and poor. Groups that hover around the poverty line and are socially excluded are almost universally more vulnerable to economic shocks, loss of household livelihood, illness, and the effects of natural disasters. There is hence an urgent need to revisit social policy as a means of more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities so that all can enjoy a decent quality of life, and each child can realize her and his full potential.
Social policy can be defined as the sum of public policies addressing education and health services, as well as those affecting livelihoods and income distribution, social protection and more broadly, social justice. In South Asia, social policy covers a range of policy areas, shaped by history, institutions and cultures. Some countries in the region boast 50 and more years of universal systems of public services provision and social protection – examples include Sri Lanka, and some states in India. Such efforts towards universal provision of at least the basic social services reflect public choices and policy-makers’ understanding that social policy is both an end in itself, by contributing to the MDGs with equity, and is also a means to ensuring macroeconomic and fiscal stability. Thus social policy is closely intertwined with economic policy. This is most obvious in social protection policies, which can be seen as a cross-cutting public service supporting access to health, education and child protection, as well as an enabler for inclusive and equitable economic development.
In South Asia, the challenge remains to make the MDGs with equity a reality for 2015. Social policy therefore needs to be cast assertively as transformative social policy and include affirmative action. The principle of universal coverage – basic education and health services for all – can only be achieved if the socially excluded are enabled and empowered to influence the design and quality of social services, to claim their right to these services, and to hold service providers accountable for their delivery. Ensuring social justice and avoiding stigma are important considerations when designing special efforts to support those who are excluded, and warrants a discussion of selection criteria, as well as monitoring and evaluation methods, by all rights holders.
By promoting inclusive and coherent economic and social polices serving the objective of reaching the MDGs with equity, and helping societies move towards peace and stability, transformative social policy can create new traditions and values that respect the rights of all. Such policy also can build the capacity of rights holders and civil society to hold the government and service deliverers, such as teachers or health workers, accountable for providing quality services.
Coordinated economic and social policies would also address the problem of child poverty and wide gaps and disparities in MDG outcomes among the various identity groups. Children’s wellbeing depends, on the one hand, on the economic, livelihoods, assets, and employment situation of adults in the household, and at the same time on access to equitable and quality basic services and social protection. If children do not receive proper nutrition or care from the outset, the detrimental effects can well be irreversible. If they do not receive a quality education, they are more vulnerable to child labor, exploitation, abuse, trafficking, and likely to remain trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty that will easily extend to their own children. The time to focus on inclusive and transformative social policy to improve children’s lives is now.