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The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a major catalyst for increasing the global focus on social protection. Over the course of 2020-2021, countries across the globe implemented close to 4,000 social protection measures to respond to its economic impact. Cash transfers alone reached around 1.4 billion people or one out of six people in the world. 

The World Bank doubled its pre-COVID-19 social protection portfolio and provided more than $14 billion to 60 countries, including 16 countries affected by fragility and conflict, reaching more than one billion people worldwide.

Now more than ever, countries need to build Universal Social Protection systems. Shocks are likely to become more prevalent as longer-term global trends like the evolving nature of work, demographic change, climate change, and conflict and fragility reshape economies and societies.


Social protection systems help individuals and families, especially the poor and vulnerable, cope with crises and shocks, find jobs, improve productivity, invest in the health and education of their children, and protect the aging population. Social protection programs are at the heart of boosting human capital and empowering people to be healthy, pursue their education, and seek opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Social protection systems that are well-designed are powerful as they enhance human capital and productivity, reduce inequalities, build resilience and end the inter-generational cycle of poverty. Such systems and tools are transformative as they help mitigate economic and fiscal shocks and provide opportunity by giving people a chance to climb out of poverty and become productive members of society. Well-designed social protection programs are cost-effective, costing countries on average about 1.5% of GDP.


Many countries have embraced social protection instruments such as safety net programs to harness human capital. Apart from providing struggling families with supplemental income, social safety nets also increase access to information and services, improve productivity, protect the elderly, and support people while they look for work.

The rapidly changing nature of work in countries at all income levels requires a dramatically new approach to social protection and labor policy, according to the report “Protecting All: Risk-Sharing for a Diverse and Diversifying World of Work”. It proposes an approach to worker protection and social security that is better adapted to an increasingly diverse and fluid world of work. These ideas are explored even more fully in the 2022 strategy update, “Charting a Course Towards Universal Social Protection: Resilience, Equity, and Opportunity for All


Social protection helps people become productive and realize their human capital. The jobs agenda is at the forefront of the Human Capital Project (HCP).  The world’s working-age population will increase by about 700 million people between 2019 and 2035. This means that an additional 470 million people will be seeking work. (Based on Jobs Group Demography Tool projections to 2035. Estimates assume no change in women’s and men’s respective participation rates of 50 & 80 per cent).  The disruptive impact of the COVID-19 crisis on workers, labor markets, and livelihoods has further underlined the importance of the jobs agenda.  

Preparing for the jobs of tomorrow, while making critical human capital investments today is a priority for achieving economic transformation in the poorest countries. As part of the HCP, the World Bank is supporting governments to equip the next generation of workers with the skills needed to tackle the types of jobs which the changing world of work will require. This also requires enabling workers to move from lower- to higher-productivity activities—led by a vibrant private sector and supported by public policy actions.


The World Bank has a vision for universal social protection to ensure that all people have the support they need and that no individuals or groups are left behind. It is the cornerstone of inclusive social policy. 

Universal social protection coverage includes: providing social assistance through cash transfers to those who need them, especially children; benefits and support for people of working age in case of maternity, disability, work injury or for those without jobs; and pension coverage for the elderly. Assistance is provided through social insurance, tax-funded social benefits, social assistance services, public works programs and other schemes guaranteeing basic income security.

Social protection systems, figure prominently in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 1.3 calls for the implementation of “nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and vulnerable”.

Together with universal social protection programs, targeted interventions play a valuable role in helping achieve universal protection. A recent report “Revisiting Targeting in Social Assistance: A New Look at Old Dilemmas” provides a comprehensive analysis of the benefits and costs of social protection targeting as well as the pros and cons of various targeting methods based on global experience in over 130 countries.

While achievements in designing and promoting the adoption of social assistance programs and delivery systems have been made, investing heavily in initiatives to improve jobs and earnings opportunities, and the expansion of social insurance programs are equally important.

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Last Updated: Oct 07, 2022

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