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Four Questions for Conny Reuter

Conny Reuter is the Secretary General of SOLIDAR

1) It is said that social protection is a cost that countries cannot afford (also in Europe the austerity policies have resulted in cuts in the social protection expenditure). What are SOLIDAR’s views on that?

Conny Reuter: First of all, Social security  is a human right: more than sixty years ago, art. 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized that ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security’.

Nevertheless, the everyday’s life of millions of people around the world, from North to South, from East to West reveals that access to adequate social protection remains a privilege for few: 73% of the world population does not have access to comprehensive social security systems (i. e. it is covered partially or not at all); 9 million children under the age of five die every year from diseases that are largely preventable; 1.4 billion people live on less than the shameful ‘USD 1.25 a day’ indicator (let’s try to think what living with this amount can look like, what happens in case you need to pay for health care or transportation to get your kids to the closest school, the closest hospital….).

The financial and economic crisis sparked in 2008, produced, in its first phase (2008-2009), a renewed attention towards social protection measures as economic (and social) stabilisers: social benefits would allow people who were losing their jobs to still have access to certain goods and services. In other terms, the attention to social security was driven by the will to maintain demand and growth. The first phase of the crisis was characterised by a global counter-cyclical policy consensus lead by the IMF that stressed the need for fiscal stimulus in order to sustain the demand and “to avoid a repeat of a Great depression scenario” . Lead by this priority, governments all around the world, adopted anti-cyclical measures and increased public spending.

Nevertheless, the time for anti-cyclical measures or expanded public spending was soon (i. e. in 2010) replaced by the belief that public expenditure should be contained in order to consolidate budgets and to finance crisis-triggered public deficits. The time of austerity (in both developing and developed countries) started. Among the main adjustment measures adopted, there were reforms to the pension and the health systems in order to reduce their costs: respectively 39 and 25 high income countries opted for these kinds of cuts. The most vulnerable, the old, the disabled, the sick, the poor, the workers were served the bill of the crisis.

Today, we can clearly state that blind fiscal consolidation policies have failed. The often unconstitutional social benefits cuts (such as the pension reforms in Portugal, and Romania) did not push the economy; on the contrary, they consolidated the slow economic growth pattern and pushed more people into poverty and social deprivation.

What is worse is that, according to the ILO, an “alarming number of countries in 2013-2015 appear to be undergoing excessive fiscal contraction, defined as cutting public expenditures below pre-crisis levels” and in spite of reassuring words, this is projected to continue until 2016 .

The supporters of austerity seem to ignore the fact that social protection is not a cost: it is an investment in people with very high social and economic returns.

Indeed, only healthy and well educated people can contribute to the economic, social and cultural life of their communities, have more chances to find decent work and conduct a decent life.

Moreover, available data demonstrate that there is not a trade- off between high productivity and high social expenditure: the two can coexist and indeed, some of the most open economies have high social expenditure (e. g. Denmark, Sweden, Finland).

As already indicated, the crisis has highlighted the role of social security as an economic and social stabilizer. There is now widespread acceptance that social protection/social security serve as social and economic stabilisers in times of crisis. Countries with existing systems are in a better position to cope with the social and economic fall-out of a crisis than those who have to introduce new ad-hoc measures.

Certainly, the issue of financing social protecting is a serious one but once again there are many policy options available: from regressive ones, such as increasing the VAT that everybody, including the less better off will have to pay, to more progressive ones such us implementing measures to fight tax evasions, tax havens, and corruption. For example, curtailing illicit financial flows could generate huge amounts: in 2009 USD 1.3 trillion moved out of developing countries, i. e. ten times the amount of aid received!

To conclude, social protection is not a cost only: it is an investment in people that allows social transformation to happen. At any level of economic development, elements of a social protection floor can be developed. To have it or not is not a matter of money. It is a matter of political will: no-one is too poor to share. This is what SOLIDAR stands for.


2) SOLIDAR is campaigning for the right to social protection for all and particularly for the implementation of the ILO Recommendation on social protection floors. Why is this Recommendation important and what does it say?

Conny Reuter: In June 2012, the ILO constituency (Governments, Workers and Employers representatives) representing 185 countries adopted the Recommendation No 202 (R202) on National Floors of Social Protection (SPF).

Before that year, the UN Chief Executive Board had launched, in 2009, the Social Protection Floor Initiative (SPF-I) as one of the Joint UN Crisis Initiative in order to promote a joint global and local UN action to promote access to essential services and social transfers for the poor and vulnerable.
The adoption of the Recommendation of the ILO R202 proved the existence of a wide consensus on the right of every person to have access to a social protection floor (to be defined nationally) and that these floors should comprise four basic social security guarantees:

(a) access to a nationally defined set of goods and services, constituting essential health care, including maternity care, that meets the criteria of availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality;
(b) basic income security for children, at least at a nationally defined minimum level, providing access to nutrition, education, care and any other necessary goods and services;
(c) basic income security, at least at a nationally defined minimum level, for persons in active age who are unable to earn sufficient income, in particular in cases of sickness, unemployment, maternity and disability; and
(d) basic income security, at least at a nationally defined minimum level, for older persons.

The guarantees should be ensured over the life cycle (childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age).

In other terms, the Recommendation represents an agreement on essential services and income support measures that all governments should provide to its people. It provides a clear definition and a common policy framework to work towards the realization of social protection for all and hence the full implementation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights art. 22.

Moreover, apart from the guarantees, the Recommendation contains, for the first time ever, an agreement on the principles that should guide and lead governments’ action to set up and implement national SPF. Indeed, the Recommendation advances 18 principles including central human rights principles such as non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability. Among them, we would like to highlight two of them: 1) The principle of “universality of protection” (that’s to say the principle of social solidarity based social protection) and 2) The principle of participation of “representative organizations of persons concerned” in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of national SPFs. In other terms, the Recommendation, while recognizing the overall and primary responsibility of the State in ensuring social protection for all, recognizes the key role played by representative CSOs.

Many have criticized the SPF for providing governments with an excuse to set up very basic and targeted social protection floors for the very poor forgetting about the rest of the population. Nevertheless, the Recommendation makes it clear that the design and the implementation of national social protection floors should not be the end of governments’ efforts but just a basis on which to build comprehensive systems.

To sum up, SOLIDAR thinks that the ILO Recommendation N. 202 is a real social policy milestone for at least four reasons:
1) it provides a clear description of what a basic floor of social protection should look like (the four guarantees);
2) it indicates the principles that should guide the setting-up, the implementation, the monitoring and evaluation of SPFs acknowledging the role representatives CSOs in this;
3) it makes clear that the floor is not the end goal but rather a starting point to build comprehensive social security systems. In other terms, no government can consider to have completed its task once a basic floor of social protection is in place but should rather look into possibilities and policy options to enlarge the scope and the entity of the benefits.
4) Social protection floors strengthen the social contract between governments and citizens, and promote national solidarity.

The real challenge remains the implementation of the Recommendation. For this, CSOs will need to set up their own monitoring tool to operate their watch dog role and ensure governments’ accountability and respect of their international commitment.

Finally, the Recommendation, and the wide consensus it represents, could be the basis for a binding instrument such us a UN Convention on National SPFs.


3) The ILO Recommendation on National Floors of Social Protection is very important for Developing countries with low level of protection but is that relevant for Europe as well? Would a social protection floor entail the risk to lower the social standards in Europe?

Conny Reuter: In industrialized countries, social protection floor-type measures’ effectiveness in reducing poverty and containing inequality is well proven. As highlighted by the Bachelet Report, in OECD countries the levels of poverty and inequality are approximately half of those that might be expected in the absence of such social protection provisions .

In other terms, social security reduces poverty by at least 50% in almost all OECD countries and income inequality by about 50% in many European countries.

From a more economic point of view, we have already mentioned that high levels of social spending are compatible with high levels of productivity. Furthermore, the crisis had demonstrated that social security systems act as automatic social and economic stabilizers, help stimulate aggregate demand in times of crisis and beyond, and help support a transition to a more sustainable economy (R202).

Nevertheless, this evidence has not stopped European (and non-European) governments to embark on a long (and not yet closed) fiscal consolidation phase.

Indeed, as already mentioned, from 2010 onwards, social investments have been strongly cut resulting in an increase of people at risk of poverty: in 2012, 123 million of people were at risk of poverty or social exclusion (AROPE) in the European Union (7 million more than in 2008) and 800,000 more children than in 2008 were living in poverty. In 2012, the in-work at risk of poverty rate was 9 per cent in the EU, highlighting that having a job is not synonymous of income security.

Among the groups with the highest risk of exclusion there are the 20,1 million of non-EU citizens living in the EU and the “NEETs”: young people between 15 and 24 years not in employment, in education, nor in training. These groups are more likely to lack a social protection floor.

In general, we witness a sort of schizophrenia in the European discourse: on one side the EU puts social protection very high on its development cooperation agenda , on the other side, the austerity policies implemented within Europe have strongly eroded the European social model.

With this background, a recent seminar organized by the International Council of Social Welfare Organizations (ICSW)  and to which SOLIDAR participated, highlighted the need for an EU level legislative initiative to guarantee and ensure income security for all people leaving in Europe. More in particular, the ICWS, has raised
1) The need for the adoption in each EU country of an inter-professional minimum wage, set taking into account local economic factors.
2) For each Member State, the European Union should set a guaranteed minimum income level that is half of the median income observed in each country.


4) SOLIDAR believes in Alliance building between progressive forces, parties, trade unions, NGOs and associations and social movements. What can a progressive alliance in your opinion do to promote the right to social protection for all at the national, regional, continental and global level?

Conny Reuter: As already mentioned, the policy challenge we have in front of us is huge:

•    More that 70% of people live in social insecurity, 20% in abject poverty: about 1.4 billion people
•    Between 7 and 10 million children die every year under the age of 5 due to a lack of access to health care and a lack of income security (access to food)
•    2.6 billion people have no access to basic sanitary services,
•    About 900 million people have no access to safe drinking water,
•    925 million suffer from chronic hunger,
•    100 million fall into poverty every year because they have to pay for health services

In order to overcome this situation a sound policy option is to invest in building national floors of social protection and social security systems: we know from more than one century of history of the modern welfare state that social transfers and services are powerful policy instruments to combat poverty, insecurity and inequality and achieve the MDGs. Moreover, social services and transfers are an economic necessity to unblock the full economic potential of a country, only people that are healthy, well educated and well nourished can be productive. Hence social security transfers are a pivotal tool to combat poverty and social exclusion and yet social security is underutilized in national anti-poverty and development strategies.

SOLIDAR wants to be part of the solution and to work together with allies, partners and stakeholders to put pressure and to build the necessary political will.

A Progressive Alliance would be crucial to push for a strong social policy agenda. More in particular, it should
1) At the international level, within the post 2015 process, the SPF Recommendation should “be adopted as a guide in developing an overarching social protection goal for social development in the framework  of the post-2015 development agenda” (in line with the demand of the Global Coalition  for Social Protection Floors).
2) Lead the process for an UN Social Protection Floors Convention moving from a soft instrument (the ILO R202) to a binding one.
3) At the National level, to facilitate national SPFs platforms to contribute creating the political will necessary to ensure that social protection becomes a reality for the millions of people who live today in income insecurity.



SOLIDAR is a European network of NGOs working to advance social justice in Europe and worldwide. It was founded in 1948 to encourage international cooperation between social aid organisations connected to the labour movement. First known as International Workers’ Aid the organisation set up its headquarters in Brussels in 1995 and was renamed SOLIDAR.

With 61 member organisations based in 27 countries (22 of which are EU countries), member organisations are national NGOs in Europe, as well as some non-EU and EU-wide organisations, working in one or more of our fields of activity.

The network is brought together by its shared values of solidarity, equality and participation.

SOLIDAR voices the concerns of its member organisations to the EU and international institutions by carrying out active lobbying, project management and coordination, policy monitoring and awareness-raising across its different policy areas.

Together with the ETUC and the ITUC, SOLIDAR has been coordinating the Global Campaign Decent Work for a Decent Life and its Call to Action reached thousands of people in Europe and outside.

Since 2007, SOLIDAR is actively campaigning for the Right to Social Protection for All together with the European Working Group on Decent Work and Social Protection in Development Cooperation, the Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors and its Global Network Partners.


“The world does not lack the resources to eradicate poverty, it lacks the right priorities”,

Juan Somavía, former ILO DG