Published on Let's Talk Development

By when would universal social protection be achieved?

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I am 41 years old and, with business as usual, I would be 106 when universal social protection (USP) is realized.

The drive for USP – a definition of which is to  ensure that everyone is covered by some form of social assistance or insurance – lies at the heart of various efforts at country and global levels.

But where are we with attaining such goal, exactly? Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Based on the World Bank’s ASPIRE database, latest estimates show that average social protection coverage in low and middle-income countries is 36.8% of the population. This includes data for 114 countries with household surveys, which leaves us with 63.2 percentage points to get to 100% coverage (that is, USP).

Now, how much progress has been achieved in recent years?

I examined data from a subset of 70 countries for which at least two surveys exist over time. With an average of 6.5 years between surveys, and average increase in coverage of 6.2 percentage points during such a period, the average yearly increase is a little less than a percentage point, or 0.9.

If we project this rate into the future, it would take us about 65 years to increase coverage by 63.2 percentage points required to attain USP – that is, we’ll get there in 2084.

In fragile states, which have an average lower coverage to start with (17% of the population) and a much slower rate of progress over time (0.3 percentage points per year), the finish line would be reached in 240 years –– i.e., 2259!

While akin to Star Wars, the estimated dates are actually optimistic: ‘business as usual’ comes with a negative connotation, but in the case of social protection, progress in recent years has often been remarkable. So not only do we need to sustain the momentum, but even accelerate decisively.

Just like universal health care is getting closer to the universality goalpost, social protection could follow suit. And to get there, we need nothing less than the vision, investment, dedication, ingenuity and ownership of all social protection actors.

Let’s see if USP may be realized sooner than my 106th birthday…


Ugo Gentilini

Global Lead for Social Assistance, World Bank

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