Understanding coverage: what does universal social protection really mean?

By Ugo Gentilini, Senior Economist, Margaret Grosh, Senior Advisor, and Michal Rutkowski, Senior Director, Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice, The World Bank


Check out the upcoming international conference Together to achieve Universal Social Protection by 2030 for more on this topic


wiego_accra_informalecon-e1548680858900.jpgThe notion that social protection is “universal” rests on two elements, namely that “everyone” is “covered.”

In many cases, the debate revolves around the “everyone” aspect – that is, the rationale and modalities to cover all members of society and not just some. Yet, this assumes clarity on the meaning of “coverage.” This is a big assumption.

In health insurance, for example, the goal is to provide coverage to all, so that in the event people fall sick, they get health services. For contributory pensions, unemployment or disability insurance programmes, coverage is used in an analogous way.

In most periods, people covered by such insurances will benefit from a guarantee or a promise of help when needed, but not necessarily from a payout. In pensions, people are covered for many years before they receive a payment; and many may never be unemployed and hence receive a payout for such a shock.

For social assistance, instead, coverage is often interpreted as receiving an actual transfer. This is quite a difference and a critical issue to clarify.

Such a difference in definition has implications for universal social protection in three ways.

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