Session 2: Social Policy: Country and Regional Perspectives

A Report from the UN Conference on the Social and Political Dimensions of the Global Crisis: Implications for Developing Countries (12-13 November 2009)

Organised by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Geneva, Switzerland. Held at the Palais des Nations.

Session 2: Social Policy: Country and Regional Perspectives

China’s role in the crisis and the recovery was tackled by UNRISD’s director, Dr. Sarah Cook. China has travelled a long way from 30 years ago, when it was poor and isolated. Twenty years ago it faced severe internal crisis, but by the Asian economic crisis in 1997 it was economically dynamic enough to help pull the rest of Asia out of the crisis. Cook noted China now sits at the cusp of becoming a global leader and this poses the question: Can China save the global financial system?

The country was able to draw on its substantial cash reserves to launch a large fiscal stimulus of 4 trillion Yuan (US $600 bn). This has meant most of the current growth in China is being generated by the stimulus. And the main driving factor behind government policy is social stability, with the state and bureaucracy playing key roles in setting priorities.

Thailand in 1997 was compared with India today by Govind Kelkar, from the Institute for Human Development. India saw a big fall in domestic demand, and lost confidence in short-term growth. There has been a 30 percent growth in women in low-pay occupations, while skilled workers have lost jobs, and temporary workers at construction sites have all but disappeared. Even India’s prosperity darling, information technology, has experienced a slowing in growth. Many IT workers had their pay cut 50 percent and were seconded to NGOs to keep them busy.

Women and children are entering the workforce to help families survive. And more people are working longer hours for less pay.

The Indian Government has been able to offer help to the rural, agricultural sector through fertiliser and food subsidies. The NREGA (http://nrega.nic.in/) (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) is reaching 50 million households. However, mostly men have benefited because the work on offer is skilled work.

The Indian stimulus for rural areas is a direct result of the rural poor vote being a large lobby in the world’s biggest democracy. And while the rapid growth of the past decade has helped the urban upper class, the government is being forced back into inclusive growth because of the pressure of politics. This contrasts with Thailand in 1997, where many women went into sex work, and the government targeted its stimulus at the urban market because the rural vote was not powerful.

Shiree (http://www.shiree.org/), Bangladesh, an NGO supporting the Government of Bangladesh to achieve the Millennium Development Goal targets on income poverty and hunger, called for a portion of the bank bailouts to go to the poor.

It reported Bangladesh was unprepared for the crisis and has not responded well. Interestingly, Shiree believes any organisation targeting the extreme poor should be obligated to graduate them from poverty within three years and to keep them out of extreme poverty for at least three to five years.

Another country that has been caught out by the global economic crisis is Senegal. Elizabeth Paul from the University of Liege and Ousmane Faye from African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), pointed out subsidies for fuel and food hurt the public finances but didn’t help the poor. Within Senegal, 44 percent of people believe poverty in households has grown. While at first Senegal didn’t think it would be affected, the consequences of the downturn have been many: tourism is down, foreign direct investment (FDI) is down, exports are down 13 percent, there is a reduction in aid flows, and overall government revenue is down.

Senegal is a member of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (http://www.uemoa.int/index.htm) and found its hands tied when it came to how it could respond because it must stick to the terms of the Union. Overall, the researchers observed, the government has not reflected on the crisis and just focused on the public finances, with no special measures for the crisis.

Funding pensions is a hot topic all around the world. While the legacy of well-funded public pensions in developed countries after the Second World War had become much-admired, recent years have shown these funds to be inadequately funded to meet need. This has led to many governments seeing a solution in privatising public pension funds. But the cases of Argentina and Nigeria – both inspired by the experience of Chile – offers lessons in what not to do.

Camila Arza, Latin American School of Social Sciences  (FLACSO) Argentina (http://www.flacso.org.ar/), explained how much of the new money was absorbed by administration costs, rather than expanding the fund. It also failed to keep up with the expansion of informal employment and extending coverage to these workers.

The experience of the Nigerian pension system was presented by Bernard H Casey, of the University of Warwick. Inspired by reforms in Chile (unfortunately just around the time Chile was abandoning those reforms), the Nigerian pension scheme only covered 10 percent of the workforce, comprising some of the public sector and large private sector firms. Yet most employment in Nigeria is informal and outside the pension system.

The new fund had such high administration fees, around 40 percent of what is saved over a lifetime was eaten up by the fees. Worse, the fund invested in the highly volatile stock market and earned returns that were 5 percent below the inflation rate: a loss of 60 percent during the lifetime of the pension.

Casey concluded it is a mistake to use pension reform to spur economic development; economic development should instead create well-funded pensions. This sort of massive mismanagement of government programmes has the effect of generating significant public cynicism in the government’s ability to run social programmes.

Relevant stories previously covered in Development Challenges, South-South Solutions:

Accessing Global Markets Via Design Solutions (https://davidsouthconsulting.wordpress.com/south-south-case-studies/development-challenges-south-south-solutions/accessing-global-markets-via-design-solutions/)

Info Ladies and Question Boxes: Reaching Out to the Poor (https://davidsouthconsulting.wordpress.com/south-south-case-studies/development-challenges-south-south-solutions/info-ladies-and-question-boxes-reaching-out-to-the-poor/)

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