Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Social protection in Cambodia: An opportunity and a possibility

By Eun-Young Jeong

Maki Kato, Chief of Social Inclusion and Governance at UNICEF, explains the importance of social protection for children in Cambodia. 
© UNICEFCambodia/2016/Eun-Young Jeong

Social protection ensures that everyone has access to a minimum standard of living. For the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, this means being supported by cash or in-kind transfers so that they can have a fair chance in life. While Cambodia has seen remarkable economic growth in recent years, there are disparities in access to basic social services, which have a huge impact in the survival and growth of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. For example, a child from the poorest household is three times more likely to die before reaching the age of 5 compared to a child from the richest household.

Recently, Cambodia took an important step forward towards enforcing universal social protection under the Social Protection Policy Framework (SPPF). I spoke with Maki Kato, Chief of Social Inclusion and Governance at UNICEF Cambodia, who is closely involved in the process. She explained why the SPPF is an exciting development for Cambodia and how it is hoped to change the lives of the most vulnerable people, especially children.

Q1: What is social protection and why is it important?

A: Social protection is a set of actions to provide income or in-kind support and programmes for disadvantaged people to access social services like education, clean water or health care. Social protection is important because it supports all people, especially the most vulnerable, who face obstacles to accessing services for economic or social reasons. For example, a poor person may not be able to receive health care because he or she doesn’t have transport money to reach a health facility. Social protection helps such people by providing income support, which can be used to cover transportation costs. Ultimately, social protection removes obstacles that stand in the way between vulnerable people and their access to social services.
I also want to note here that vulnerability can be caused by different reasons and at varying levels. In Cambodia, poverty is the biggest factor to vulnerability and this is especially the case for children. It’s estimated that more than 20 per cent of children live in poverty and another large proportion lives just above the poverty line.

Q2: What is the Social Protection Policy Framework (SPPF)?

A: The Social Protection Policy Framework, also known as SPPF, brings together all social protection work under one policy document for the first time ever in Cambodia. The SPPF marks a significant step for the Royal Government of Cambodia because it reflects the Government’s commitment to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable people along with the needs of the rest.

Q3: Why is it important for Cambodia to have the SPPF now?

A: Cambodia is on the verge of becoming a middle income country and is witnessing remarkable economic growth. However, benefits from this economic growth is not reaching everyone and it’s going to take some time before all Cambodians reach a minimum standard of living. The SPPF is important for Cambodia now because it can guide the Government to prioritize social protection for those who are not immediately benefiting from the country’s growth and to ensure that no one is left behind.

There are other reasons why SPPF is so important for Cambodia. Cambodia’s increasing economic growth will mean decreasing financial contributions from international development partners in upcoming years and Cambodia needs to start exploring ways to self-finance social services. Social protection provides support to people over a life cycle and requires a long-term approach. The SPPF allows the Government to start investing time and resources in this as early as possible.

The SPPF will also help policymakers to prepare for Cambodia’s demographic changes. With reduced fertility rates among women at reproductive age,  Cambodia will start seeing a bigger aging population that needs social protection within a couple of decades, while having a smaller number of people in the work force who can contribute to its costs. This, by the way, shows why investing in social protection for children—who are Cambodia’s future work force—is so important.

Q4: What are the anticipated changes under the new SPPF?

A: A key change under the new SPPF is in the Government’s strengthened efforts to self-finance social protection. Development of the SPPF is currently led by the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF), which is an ideal scenario because the MEF holds the mandate to allocate the Government’s resources and is best positioned to ensure that sufficient funds are available for social protection initiatives. The new SPPF is also anticipated to boost coordination among ministries and provide a much-needed guideline for different agencies to work together and create synergies.

Q5: How is UNICEF contributing to the new SPPF?

A: UNICEF is supporting the Government to make sure that no vulnerable populations, especially children, are left out of the SPPF. Children born in poor families who do not have access to care, good health and adequate nutrition are robbed of the opportunity to fully develop during their most crucial period in life. This has a lifelong impact on children and can create a cycle of poverty that is passed down from one generation to the next.

To prevent this, UNICEF is working with the Government to make sure that the new SPPF includes social protection and services for children. Once the SPPF is finalized, UNICEF, together with the Government and other partners, will look at how to expand social protection programmes, particularly for the most vulnerable children.

Q6: What main challenges do you foresee in implementing the SPPF?

A: Enhancing coordination among various players is often a challenge and this may take some time. Social protection, by its nature, cannot be managed by one ministry. Rather, it has to involve ministries from different sectors such as health, education and labour, among others. UNICEF and our partners will support different agencies so that they are well-coordinated in order to avoid duplicating efforts and fill in critical gaps.

The second challenge is related to financing. It’s yet unclear how the Government is going to finance the implementation of the social protection policy. This costing and financing strategy for the SPPF will be done at a later stage.

Q7: How long do you think it will take before the benefits of the SPPF reach the most vulnerable people?

A: It will take several years until the benefits of the SPPF reach everyone. Having said this, however, there’s no need to wait until everything is ready to provide social protection. SPPF will start in small scale and be expanded in phases until it reaches everyone. Some groups may benefit from the SPPF earlier than others. What’s important is that the analysis to identify the most vulnerable people is done continuously, and implementation plans are adjusted along the way, so that social protection reaches the most vulnerable people. 

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