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Evaluation report

2000 Global: Absorbing Social Shocks - Protecting children and reducing poverty, the role of basic social services

Author: Vandemoortele, J.; UNICEF NYHQ

Executive summary


The 1990s saw a recovery from the previous "lost" decade of the development. It also witnessed a quasi universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nevertheless, progress for children has not kept pace with promises. Among the many reasons for the shortfall, one stands out: under-investment in basic social services. Without universal access to these services, children's rights cannot be guaranteed and poverty will not be reduced. If robust economic growth in places as far apart as South Asia, Latin America and the United States cannot narrow disparities and reduce poverty, there is a strong case for public action to complement market outcomes.

Purpose / Objective

This paper highlights several lines of argument about the need for public action and social policy.


This paper starts by briefly summarizing the global poverty trends in developing countries. They show that - apart from East Asia - little or no progress has been made since 1990. The paper also highlights the main results of 30 country studies that examined the level, equity and efficiency of public spending on basic social services [UNICEF and UNDP, 1998]. It then raises some relevant issues of social policy, such as targeting, queuing for primary education, charging for basic social services, the education vaccine against AIDS, and the inherent un-equalizing nature of globalization. It argues that a broad-based social shock-absorber is will help sustain globalization by making market outcomes more equitable and inclusive. Ex-post social safety nets are often inadequate in times of crisis.

Key Findings and Conclusions

First, given the distribution of income, assets, skills and capabilities, globalization is benefiting the haves more than the have-nots, resulting in widening disparities and deepening poverty. Priority must focus on creating basic human capabilities through universal access to basic social services. The paper shows that budget and aid allocations are too low in most countries to ensure universal coverage of quality services.

Second, public spending on social services is often iniquitous and inefficient. Enough experience has been collected to formulate principles and good practices for social policy in different contexts. One of the lessons learned is the importance of the synergy among services, as exemplified by the education vaccine against AIDS, reported in this paper.

Third, the forces that lead to greater income inequality also result in the Matthew effect by which the benefits of public spending disproportionately accrue to the middle and upper classes, at the expense of the poor. The good news is that expenditures on basic social services are less regressive than those on post-primary services. The only way in which the poor will gain access to basic social services is by making them universally available. The paper makes the analogy with queuing for public services, and shows that the poor usually find themselves at the end of the line. The paper questions the practicality of narrow targeting as a means to help the poor jump the queue.

Fourth, the evidence gathered by numerous surveys shows that markets will not, on their own, yield equitable outcomes, nor will they achieve universal coverage of basic social services. Mimicking the market through fees and user charges for basic public services has proven to be detrimental in terms of children's rights and poverty reduction.

Throughout, the paper illustrates how national averages can lead to misleading interpretations about social progress. It argues that analysis needs to go beyond averages. The average is nothing more than a concept, a convenience created to help us understand things. An average country or an average child, however, does not exist in reality, only in our mind. Hence the need to avoid the fallacy of the mean when describing the real world. The paper also questions the validity of the international benchmark of $1-a-day as a universal norm for monitoring or comparing poverty levels.

Finally, the paper makes the point that universal access to basic social services of good quality is within the reach of all nations. Countries that do not equip their people to face the turbulence associated with globalization will be at a serious disadvantage. Universal access to these services offers a social shock absorber for travelling the bumpy road to a globalized economy. It will enable and empower the poor to participate in and benefit from economic growth - thereby making market outcomes more equitable and globalization more inclusive and sustainable.


We believe that universal access to an integrated package of basic social services is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways of reducing poverty and creating a level playing field. It will create a social shock-absorber in times of crisis, which will help sustain the globalization process and make it more inclusive. Basic social services are key to trigger the virtuous circle of social and economic development. Access to these services will equip and empower the poor to embrace change and make globalization work for everyone, thereby improving the equity of market outcomes.

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