Rights-Based Approaches to Social Protection

L-H Piron


What can rights based approaches (RBAs) offer to social protection agendas? This paper from the Overseas Development Institute is part of a project commissioned by DFID to assist the development of an institutional policy and approach to social protection programming. It explores the relationship between human rights standards, principles and programming and policies and interventions for social protection in countries worldwide. RBAs offer normative standards and principles, analytical tools and operational guidance and there is a strong congruence between RBAs and social protection.

Social protection (SP) is an approach that responds to the risks faced by poor and vulnerable people, with a view to making them less insecure. Rights-based approaches aim to enable all people to be active citizens, empowered to claim their rights. DFID’s RBA has been operationalised through three principles: ‘participation’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘fulfilling obligation’.

RBAs are normative: derived from a framework assigning rights and obligations to individuals, groups and states. They therefore strengthen the case for SP, and help to inform the design, implementation and evaluation of SP measures.

  • SP becomes not a matter of charity or generosity, but a basic responsibility of the state.
  • As well demonstrating the human right to social protection, RBAs draw on all human rights. This covers a wider set of risks, vulnerabilities and public policy options.
  • If we broaden the definition of poverty and vulnerability to encompass more than income, it is clear that the inter-dependence of human rights is critical. SP contributes to achieving minimum standards related to all economic, social and cultural rights. It also contributes to civil and political rights.
  • Human rights norms and standards provide additional protection for specific groups with particular vulnerabilities, e.g. based on age, gender, disability and race.
  • A range of human rights principles, including equality and non-discrimination, participation and accountability, justify social protection and improve the design of schemes. This may include non-stigmatising affirmative action or targeting.

Further contributions of RBAs to operationalising SP include:

  • The centrality of active citizenship, drawing attention to the often neglected ‘demand-side’ of social protection and ability to claim protection. The principle of participation is key. Attention must also be paid to broader political and social contexts and the complexities of political empowerment, social mobilisation, or costs involved in claiming social protection.
  • Focus on the capabilities of the state and its agents to deliver SP appropriately. Accountability mechanisms are critical. Safety, security and access to justice (SSAJ) interventions are important in addressing demand and supply side issues.
  • RBAs can be applied at different stages of social protection policy and programming: justification, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation and political sustainability.
  • DFID could build on the World Bank’s Social Risk Management Framework through an RBA. This would include recognising state obligations concerning rights and the centrality of rights to development (including concerns of the social impact of structural adjustment programmes). It also recognises the active role of the state in supporting Social Risk Management, further highlights discrimination and emphasises the range of vulnerable groups needing assistance.
  • DFID should also work with the ILO on labour and related standards as part of an institutional SP policy and strategy.
  • An RBA strengthens the case for international obligations to support SP.


Piron, L-H., 2004, ‘Rights-Based Approaches to Social Protection’, Overseas Development Institute, London