In the twentieth century, social protection, whose objective is to reduce and prevent lifelong poverty and vulnerability, became an issue of economic, social—and now environmental—development, as well as a (national and international) peacemaking tool and a basic human right in the name of human dignity. However, it still only concerns a minority of individuals in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region and the Near East; those who are without it are exposed to poverty, inequality, and social exclusion.

The aim of social protection (or social security) is to reduce and prevent poverty and vulnerability through all stages of life. It encompasses instruments of various kinds: benefits for children and families, maternity, unemployment, work-related injuries and illnesses, sickness, old age, disability,

survivors’ benefits. In the 20th century, became an economic, social and environmental development issue, a tool for promoting peace (nationally and internationally) and a fundamental human right in accordance with the principle of human dignity.

Change in social coverage, 1900-2010

Source: International Labor Organization, World Social Protection Report 2017-2019

Comment: Social protection and the right to social security have been part of the ILO mandate since it was created in 1919. The organization supplies very complete databases (World Social Protection Database) and reports. In 1900, few countries had social protection systems, and the slope of all the curves shows significant progress in this area. Social coverage varies according to the proportion of the population covered, the number of risks covered and the degree to which needs are satisfied. It also varies from one region and one country to another. For example, help for older people is the most developed overall (almost 68% of the global population), but is only 30% in Africa, whereas it exceeds 95% in Europe and Central Asia. Coverage is least developed in the case of unemployment, ranging between 6% of the population in Africa and 43% in Europe.

Yet only a minority of individuals in Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East enjoy social protection today. In 2018, 55% of the global population lacked access to even a single social security benefit and only one person in five had adequate social security coverage.

Emergence of the social state

The welfare state is the modern state’s latest manifestation, with its origins in the late 19th century when people began to question the model of a liberal Western state that was economically triumphant (industrial revolution) but criticized by social and union movements for the harsh conditions of its workers’ lives. Founded on the recognition of collective freedoms (mechanisms of representation and collective bargaining) and on the principle of solidarity (including intergenerational solidarity) in developing social legislation, social protection takes various forms and is financed in different ways: provision and social insurance via statutory contributions (Germany), individual capitalization plus universal social protection floor (UK), social security as public service (France), redistribution via universalist provision (Scandinavian countries).

Social legislation was initially devised and implemented at national level. Unions (creation of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864), and then multilateralinstitutions (creation of the International Labor Organization [ ILO ] in 1919 and the International Social Security Association [ ISSA ] in 1927) were the vehicles of its internationalization, resulting in numerous international agreements. International progress has been more limited since the Second World War – exceptions being the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) – as priorities have shifted (to economic development for international institutions, and to an open, free-flowing labor market for the European project).

The spread of national social security programs ended with decolonization. Yet calls to roll out the welfare state on a global scale met resistance from industrialized nations and multinational corporations (MNCs) – bringing about the failure of the New International Economic Order [NIEO] in the late 1970s – anticipating subsequent challenges to some of the mainstays of the social state with the neoliberal turn of the 1980s.

The social protection established in the 20th century contributed to the prosperity and social and economic development of industrialized societies. In these societies, today it is being undermined by globalization, social and fiscal competition and systemic financial risks. The anonymous nature of provision, long a guarantee of effective protection at a time of declining solidarity, has in turn given rise to an individualism critical of the redistributive process – a trend that the work of charities, community organizations and religious organizations can only partially offset.

Social coverage, 1950-2014

Source: International Labor Organization, World Social Protection Report 2017-2019,

Comment: Social protection and the right to social security have been part of the ILO mandate since it was created in 1919. The organization supplies very full databases (World Social Protection Database) and reports on this matter. A comparison of the two maps with a 60-year gap between them (1950-2014) shows – all branches combined – substantial progress (the “no cover” category having almost disappeared) and an increase in the number of countries with complete coverage. This does not mean that all inhabitants have full access and that the coverage meets their real needs. Furthermore, great inequalities continue to subsist (“partial cover” or “very limited” in most African states, the particular situation of the United States where it is private, and so on).

Toward universal social justice?

In order to meet the new global challenges – political, economic, demographic and environmental in nature – as well as resolving the difficulties some population categories have in accessing social protection, international institutions are now advocating the provision of universal social protection designed to ensure that everyone receives the income or benefits they need through all stages of life.

Social protection expenditure, 2010-2015

Source: International Labor Organization, World Social Protection Report 2017-2019,

Comment: Social protection and the right to social security have been part of the ILO mandate since it was created in 1919. The organization supplies very full databases (World Social Protection Database) and reports on this matter. The map showing global expenditure on social protection (sickness, unemployment, old age, work accidents, family and maternity allowances, disabled allowances, and survivors’ pensions) calculated as a proportion of GDP marks out Western Europe and Japan as having the highest figures (more than 20% of GDP). At the other extreme, in parts of Africa and Western, Southern, and Southeast Asia, expenditure on social protection is low, with less than 6% of GDP.

The aim is to help prevent infant mortality, reduce poverty and child labor, combat the impacts of unemployment, under-employment (especially among the young), the casualization of labor and informal employment, growing poverty among those in work, and inadequate protection for migrantworkers, and to adapt labor markets to the digital revolution. While support for the elderly is the most widespread form of social protection, it faces the challenge of an ageing population – and still cannot guarantee effective access to essential healthcare provision everywhere (long-term care and rural areas being particular challenges).

Facing the same challenges, many countries of the South, emerging countries in particular, are opting to strengthen their social protection mechanisms, as with the Bolsa Familia program in Brazil, China’s medical insurance program, the deprivatization of pension systems in Argentina and Poland, and universal coverage in Lesotho and Namibia.


To quote this article

" Social regulation " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:


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