1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Over half of globe doesn't have social protection

Kristie Pladson
September 1, 2021

Most of the world's population has no access to protections like health care or income security in case of unemployment, old age, illness or maternity. Despite pandemic spending, matters have only gotten worse.

People pass by a man in a wheelchair under the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius, Lithuania
More than half of the world's population doesn't have access to a single social protectionImage: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Over half of the global population lacks any form of social protection, a report released Wednesday by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found. This is the case even after the unprecedented expansion of social protections that took place following the global outbreak of COVID-19.

In 2020, just 47% of the world population had effective access to at least one social protection benefit, the ILO found. The remaining 53% — up to 4.1 billion people — had no protection at all.

Social protection includes access to health care and income security, for example in cases of unemployment, inability to work, old age and for families with children.

"We are only as safe as the most vulnerable among us; our well-being and destinies are intimately entwined, regardless of our location, background or work," wrote ILO Director-General Guy Ryder in the report's introduction. "If some people cannot count on income security while sick or in quarantine, then public health will be undermined and our collective well-being jeopardized."

More social protection of workers needed

Stark differences

The "World Social Protection Report 2020-22" assesses recent developments in social protection systems worldwide. Social protection coverage still varies significantly by country and region, the latest research found.

People in Europe and Central Asia are among the best covered, with 84% of their populations having access to at least one benefit. In the Americas, the rate is 64.3%. In Asia and the Pacific as well as the Arab States, just under half of people are covered while in Africa, only 17.4% have access to at least one benefit.

Most children around the globe had no social protection, the ILO found. Only one in four children worldwide receive a social protection benefit and only 45% of women with newborns get a cash maternity benefit.

Just one in three people with severe disabilities can access disability benefits and only one in five people around the globe are covered if they lose their job.

Three-quarters of people over retirement age have access to some sort of pension, however coverage varies sharply between regions, rural and urban areas and men and women.

Covid-19, the great unequalizer

Gap between rich and poor grows

The report also examined the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on social protection: The additional spending that would now be required to ensure minimum social protection for all, known as the financing gap, has gone up approximately 30% since the start of the pandemic, the report found.

Low-income countries would require an additional $77.9 billion (€66 billion) per year to guarantee at least basic social protection coverage, equivalent to 16% of gross domestic product (GDP). Lower-middle-income countries would need an additional $362.9 billion per year and upper-middle-income countries would need an additional $750.8 billion per year

On average, countries around the globe spend approximately 13% of GDP on social protection (health care excluded). But spending can vary significantly between nations. High-income countries spend on average 16.4% of GDP on social protection while low-income countries spend only 1.1%.

IMF jumps to Africa's rescue with fresh aid

More spending needed

The global health emergency caused by the coronavirus has provoked governments to unleash significant social protection spending. This has included increasing benefits, improving delivery mechanisms, and extending coverage to groups that were previously unprotected

However, despite international efforts, higher-income countries have been more successful in their response than low- and middle-income countries. These coverage and financing gaps between countries supported a recent forecast from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warning that richer countries were seeing signs of a healthy recovery while gains in poorer countries were being reversed, the report said. 

Compounded by an uneven vaccine rollout, these gaps in social protection also point to a greater likelihood of an uneven global recovery from COVID-19.

Social protection could provide wide-ranging social and economic benefits for countries at all levels of development, Shahra Razavi, director of the ILO's Social Protection Department, said in a press release. These include better health and education, more sustainable economic systems, better managed migration and an improved observance of human rights.

"There is an enormous push for countries to move to fiscal consolidation, after the massive public expenditure of their crisis response measures," said Razavi. "But it would be seriously damaging to cut back on social protection — investment is required here and now."