Financing social protection in light of international spending targets: A public sector review

Research reports and studies
October 2010
Jessica Hagen-Zanker; Anna McCord; Karen Ellis; Ed Hedger; Sam Moon; Rohit Singh

This study explores the ‘affordability’ of development targets in six key sectors (health, education, water and sanitation, agriculture and infrastructure), by means of an empirical study examining sectoral expenditure in five low income case study countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda) and comparing them with target levels of expenditure set out in recent international agreements to which sub-Saharan governments are signatories. The study has a particular focus on social protection in response to growing government and donor interest in the affordability of provision in this sector. This approach is taken in order to assess the limitations of the current ‘silo’ approach to sector financing which characterises much of the development financing discourse, and which results in the abstraction of one sector from the broader fiscal whole, to the detriment of overall fiscal coherence and realism. While this study looks at total expenditure per sector, it does not look at efficiency or outcomes of this spending.

The report examines expenditure in 2006/ 2007 in relation to sector-specific international targets, assesses the shortfall, and then explores the fiscal feasibility of financing all six sectoral targets. The paper finds that meeting all the six targets simultaneously would require more than 100% of total government expenditure in four of the five case study countries, and 98% in the fifth, and that to meet these targets while retaining current levels of expenditure in other sectors would imply doubling current levels of government expenditure. Often it is claimed that developing country governments lack the political will to allocate resources to some sectors. However, this study suggests that the inadequacy of public expenditure in key sectors is also informed by the inherent impossibility of simultaneously meeting the range of international commitments to which developing counties are signatories.

Current funding for basic social protection provision is between 0.1% and 0.7% of GDP in the case study countries, compared to target expenditure levels of 4.5% to achieve the goals of the basic social protection component of the AU Social Policy Framework. This study concludes that the social protection sector is in competition with the five other key development sectors and that not all goals can be met from available resources. While there may be potential to increase financing to this sector through the conventional range of instruments (efficiency savings, reallocation, increased borrowing, increased revenue generation, increased ODA or private sector financing) the social protection sector is in effect in competition with each of the other key development sectors in pursuit of any additional resources, and when considered in aggregate as part of the wider fiscal context, it is clear that meeting all targets is not realistic, and consequently that the development vision which underlies them, is challenged, even compromised by the fiscal reality. 9

Input targets have a role to play in i) motivating greater effort in revenue generation (within the boundaries of sound macroeconomic policy) and ii) encourage governments and donors to prioritise spending by reallocating from low to high-priority sectors within existing budgets. While such targets can serve as useful lobbying mechanisms, spending targets should be taken ‘seriously but not literally’ (Wood, 2004): that is primarily as a guide and motivation for raising and spending public finance. This report does not conclude that such targets should be dropped, but it does caution against the argument that particular sectoral targets are ‘affordable’ in any objective sense.

The report highlights the tension faced by governments between the need for good public financial management on the one hand, and the challenge of meeting international commitments on the other, raising the impossibility of meeting the key development spending targets simultaneously. Given the unavoidable overall financing shortfall, the key question becomes prioritisation of the use of existing resources, the opportunity cost of programming outside these sectors and non priority or ineffective use of resources within the sectors.

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