The IMF and social protection: the perennial tension between a targeted and rights-based approach

In one of its latest reports, The  Independent Evaluation Office (IEO), examined IMF’s changing role in providing advice and assistance to member states in strengthening social protection systems. While being mildly critical, the IEO commended the Fund for the role that it played since the 1990s in placing social protection as a ‘macro-critical’ issue when engaging with member states, both operationally through its various lending arrangements and through its advisory and surveillance roles.  The IEO then suggested various recommendations  to strengthen the IMF’s capacity in offering advice and support to member states in enacting and implementing social protection policies. There is, however, one area where the IEO frankly acknowledges the IMF faces a major challenge, namely, institutional collaboration with UN agencies, most notably UNICEF and ILO.

The challenge of developing  productive collaboration between the IMF and UN agencies stems from different approaches to social protection. The IMF generally favours a ‘targeted’ approach to social protection in which means-testing is used to allocate scarce public funds to help the poor and the needy. Given its mandate, the IMF is understandably concerned about the fiscal sustainability of social protection policies. The UN agencies, on the other hand, subscribe to a ‘rights-based’ approach which ‘…emphasizes universal benefits and targeting by category (e.g. demographic groups) rather than income’. Combining the two different approaches into a unified position has proven to be rather difficult.

The IEO also notes that ‘IMF-World Bank cooperation on social protection generally worked well’ but worries that this might not necessarily be the case in the future. This is because in 2015 the World Bank decided to ‘…adopt the goal of universal social protection’.  How that proclamation will manifest itself in practice remains to be seen, but at least there is a formal change in approach. As the World Bank group President puts it, ‘…universal coverage and access to social protection are central to the World Bank Group’s twin goals, to end extreme poverty by 2030 and boost shared prosperity’.

There is in addition the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) endorsed by 193 member states of the UN system which supports universal social protection. For example, under goal 1 (ending extreme poverty in all its forms) the SDGs proclaim: ‘Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable’. The IMF has, as a good citizen of the international community, subscribed to the SDGs. Yet, at the same time, it adheres to a fiscal-centric and targeted approach to social protection.  Resolving this tension, especially in light of the World Bank moving in the direction of the UN agencies in the area of social protection, will remain a major challenge for the Fund. Unless it does so, it will be unable to appease its critics that it really is serious about social protection beyond helping the poor and the needy through means-tested programmes.

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