The ILO and Social Protection in the Global South, 1919-2005

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Centre for Social Science Research

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University of Cape Town

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) played an important role in developing institutions of social protection – i.e. in promoting welfare statebuilding – outside of the earlier industrialising societies of north-western Europe and North America. For most of the century the ILO promoted its preferred model based on social insurance, even in the face of disagreement within the ILO over the limits of contributory social insurance in societies in which formal wage employment was the exception rather than the rule. This paper examines three episodes of model-building within the ILO from the perspective of their relevance in the global South. First, in the 1920s and 1930s, the ILO grappled with the difficulties of extending Northern models to the global South. Secondly, in the 1940s, the ILO debated the appropriate mix of contributory and non-contributory provision, whilst in practice promoting the former and downplaying the latter. Thirdly, between the 1950s and 1980s, the ILO grappled with the challenge of combining its emphasis on social insurance with more directly pro-poor policies, in contexts where workers in formal employment were rarely among the poorer sections of society. Pro-poor policies meant, in general, developmental policies, that sought to transform the rural and urban poor into workers. Throughout, the ILO retained a strong emphasis on social insurance, i.e. on a ‘workerist’ model of welfare. Only in the early twenty-first century did the ILO begin to consider seriously and promote the possibility of expanded social assistance schemes. Whilst previous studies have identified three ‘generations’ of policy that correspond broadly to the episodes discussed in this paper, they typically underestimate the continuities between them.