Social Security Protection as a Fundamental Human Right

By Michael Mjinja:*

* *

Social security is very important for the well-being of workers, their
families and the entire community. It is a basic human right and a
fundamental means for creating social cohesion… It is an indispensable part
of government social policy and an important tool to prevent and alleviate

The right to social security guarantees the basic resources needed for a
decent life in the event that an individual is unable to work, temporarily
or permanently, due to old age, disability, maternity or any other factors
outside of her or his control. It provides a safety net to protect human
beings from violations of their dignity, harm to their well-being, and
conditions of abject poverty. Under international law, social security is
recognized as a human right. Social security is also explicitly provided for
in national constitutions of countries around the world. Income support is a
core aspect of social security. Such support should be appropriate to meet
the basic needs of the individual and should reflect the special needs for
assistance and other expenses often associated with disability.

More recently, the concept of social security has been further expanded to
encompass a framework of social protection which provides generalized social
support for all citizens, regardless of contributions or employment history,
although these factors remain important in determining the level of benefits
above their basic minimum. This has enabled extension of income support to
individuals on the basis of need rather than acquired rights, and has
facilitated the provision of health care to entire population in some

Social protection has two basic functions, namely a preventive function and
a safety net function. Preventive function permits all economically active
or formerly active members of society, or all residents, to build up
entitlements which allow the maintenance of a decent standard of living in
the event of contingencies. And safety net function ensures that all members
of society facing destitution are provided with the minimum level of cash
income, health and social services which allow them to lead a socially
meaningful life.

Almost all countries now possess some form of institutionalized social
security system. However, there is considerable variation between groups of
countries, between regions, and between individual countries as to the
contingencies and population covered, the level of benefits, and in the
efficiency and effectiveness with which the schemes operate.

The expansion of social protection in the industrialized countries has been
a great success. The incidence of poverty among the elderly is now no
greater than for the population as a whole and retirement spans ten or
twenty years. Access to high quality health care is universal, or almost so,
and medical and pharmaceutical developments have eliminated many of the
infectious diseases which affected children and men and women in the prime
of life; health expenditures are now chiefly concerned with the chronic
diseases of later life. While many of these achievements are associated with
economic growth, general improvements in the standard of living (better
housing, diet and public health services for example) and good governance
and administration, they have also been strongly propelled by the
development of social protection.

Few of such gains are found in the developing countries, in spite of the
fact that virtually all of them possess some form of social security. But
almost invariably, the scope of their schemes is restricted to public
services and the modern sector of the economy, where the structure of large
enterprises makes it possible to collect contributions, maintain records of
benefits and entitlements, and administer social security schemes. But even
within this limited scope, there are problems of compliance, by both
employers and workers, and many formal sector workers are not brought within
the schemes. Benefits are generally very low or of short duration, and the
contingencies covered are very limited. Health services are poor in quality
and difficult to access. Coverage for individuals outside of the modern
sector of the economy is rare or minimal.

Usually statistics on social security coverage are expressed in various
ways, as a percentage of the labour force, the economically active or the
population as a whole. In most of sub-Saharan countries coverage is less
than 5 per cent of the economically active population.

As the experience of the developed countries has shown, the presence of a
reasonable social safety net for all individuals and households enlarges and
strengthens the labour force of a country and underpins a greater degree of
political and social stability. Access to social protection is a basic human
right, as well as the measure of human welfare, and its promotion requires
normative actions – on the part of governments and the social partners.

*Michael Mjinja*

*Social Security Consultant*