Learning how to promote social protection from Cambodia's garment workers.

Author:DiCaprio, Alisa

Innovations in social protection systems design have moved forward quickly on the supply-side over the past decade. But the same degree of creativity has not been applied to the equally critical demand-side constraints to social protection. Without channels through which the demand for social protection can be expressed to the provider of such protection, even the most finely-tuned system will not be sustainable in the long run.

Yet system design has paid almost no attention to the challenges of promoting the types of political opportunity structures that can incorporate activism around social protection. This is an important oversight because social protection programming has become an established component of most foreign assistance aimed at poverty reduction.

Facilitating demand can help well-designed programmes take root in the short run, and remain operational in the longer run. In a UNU-WIDER working paper published in December 2011, I used the case of Cambodia's labour rights regime to illustrate how the political opportunity structure was adjusted to incorporate workers' voices and the potential for those channels to be used to promote other types of protection.

The incorporation of design elements that open up political opportunity structures to allow the expression of demand is particularly critical when we recognize that social protection is, at its core, a government-driven redistributive programme. In the long run, the sustainability of even the most carefully conceived programmes will depend on the ability of recipients to demand them.

One reason the demand-side of social protection is not at the forefront of programme design is linked to the opacity regarding exactly which institutions or norms are most appropriate to facilitate voice. The social protection situation in Cambodia offers some useful insights into this question.

Among fragile states, Cambodia stands out in its achievement of a labour rights regime that is relatively well-enforced and solidly institutionalized in contrast to relatively weak social protections more generally. The relatively rapid turnaround of this sector was the result of a historically unique conditional trade arrangement between Cambodia and the USA. The conditions of the arrangement required the establishment of institutions for enforcing and monitoring the working conditions of garment and apparel workers.

By changing the environment in which social movements operate, the success of the...

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