Amid Soaring Poverty and Hunger, Amnesty Demands ‘Universal Social Protection’ Worldwide

“We cannot continue to look away as inequality soars, and those struggling are left to suffer,” said Amnesty International’s secretary-general.

By Jake Johnson. Published 5-10-2023 by Common Dreams

An urban slum in Hanoi, Viet Nam. Photo: United Nations/flickr/CC

With global poverty and hunger rising amid the intertwining crises of war, public health emergencies, and climate change, Amnesty International on Wednesday issued an urgent call for governments worldwide to implement universal social protections to ensure that healthcare, childcare, pensions, disability payments, and other benefits are available to all who need them.

Noting that many popular uprisings and mass protests across the globe in recent years have been fueled by economic and social concerns, Amnesty lamented that governments have turned to “repression and unnecessary and excessive use of force” against struggling demonstrators instead of addressing their core concerns, such as high food prices and paltry wages.

“A key factor behind the economic insecurity driving many protests is the fact that the vast majority of people simply do not enjoy their right to social security, realized through the implementation of social protection measures, in a way that would protect them from crises and precarity and support them to recover,” noted a new Amnesty policy brief titled Rising Prices, Growing Protests: The Case for Universal Social Protection.

Amnesty estimated that more than half of the world’s population is not covered by “any social protection measure other than healthcare, rising to over 80% in Africa.”

“It is shocking that over 4 billion people, or about 55% of the world’s population, have no recourse to even the most basic social protection, despite the right to social security being enshrined since 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general.

Amnesty’s brief demanded that all governments “invest in social protection measures that guarantee the right to social security, ensuring that everyone has access to adequate levels of healthcare; parental care and benefits; family and child benefits; basic income security for persons in active age who are unable to earn sufficient income, in cases of sickness, unemployment, and disability; and basic income security for older persons.”

More broadly, the humanitarian group’s report encourages nations to move away from means-tested policy approaches in favor of “universal social protection” that covers everyone regardless of income.

“Protecting people against losses due to shocks, from disasters or economic reversals, can be transformational, both for society and the state that provides the support, by reducing social tension and conflict and promoting recovery,” said Callamard. “It enables children to stay in education, improves healthcare, reduces poverty and income inequality, and ultimately benefits societies economically.”

To help countries establish universal protection systems, Amnesty expressed support for a global fund that would “offer states technical and financial support to provide social security”—an idea that has been endorsed by the United Nations secretary-general and the International Labor Organization.

“While the specifics of the creation and implementation of such a fund will need to be agreed upon,” Amnesty acknowledged, “the current situation triggered by the pandemic, the climate crisis, and the fallout from the invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that there is an urgent need for a global mechanism that will facilitate comprehensive social protection coverage from current and future shocks.”

On top of robust investments in social protections, Amnesty’s brief called on international creditors to “reschedule or cancel debts” to allow countries to prioritize investments in healthcare, food programs, and other priorities over costly debt repayments.

Amnesty also urged governments to do all they can to crack down on tax avoidance by the wealthy and enact progressive tax reforms—revenue from which could be used to fund social programs.

“We cannot continue to look away as inequality soars, and those struggling are left to suffer,” Callamard said. “Tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance by individuals and corporations are depriving states and particularly lower-income countries of the resources they need.”

Amnesty’s brief came as aid groups and experts continue to assess the toll that the global coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the worsening climate emergency have taken on the world’s most vulnerable people.

According to a report published earlier this month by the Food Security Information Network, found that nearly 260 million people in 58 countries are currently experiencing acute hunger, an increase of 65 million from last year.

“For global hunger to rise for a fifth consecutive year in a world of plenty is a stain on our collective humanity,” Emily Farr, Oxfam International’s global food and economic security lead, said in response to the report.

“We need an urgent and fundamental shift in our humanitarian system if we are to put the brakes on the speeding hunger crisis,” said Farr. “Funds must be used to equip poor countries to prepare for and cope with reoccurring economic and climate shocks before they happen, and rich donors must immediately inject money to meet the U.N. appeal for response.”

“But just ‘band-aid’ funding will only temporarily delay the problem,” Farr added. “We must do more in resolving conflict, inequality, and climate change. Warring parties must lower their guns. Rich polluting nations must cut their emissions. Governments must tax the rich and polluters to free funds for social protection and climate mitigation to help vulnerable people cope with shocks.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). 

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