SOCIAL protection is an emerging key sector in pro-poor development thinking.
Globally, it has been necessitated by the realisation that as the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) draws nearer, the levels of poverty and vulnerability still remain high in Zambia.
According to the country's Sixth National Development Plan (SNDP), social protection policies and programmes seek to promote the livelihoods and welfare of the poorest and those most vulnerable to risks and shocks.
It is a poverty reduction strategy that promotes human development, social equity and human rights.
The high levels of poverty and vulnerability coupled with multiple effects of HIV/AIDS and high levels of unemployment provide a strong justification for the need of social protection.
One of the organisations that are torch bearers in the promotion of social protection is the Platform for Social Protection (PSP), whose support is provided by the Irish Aid.
PSP is one of the civil society organisations advocating the development and implementation of effective policies and programmes for social protection in the country.
The organisation is aimed at raising awareness on social protection among civil society and other stakeholders.
It also facilitates and enhances effective participation and contribution of stakeholders to the social protection processes in Zambia.
PSP country coordinator Mutale Wakung'uma explains that poverty and vulnerability are amongst the biggest socio-economic challenges facing Zambia.
"In Zambia, poverty currently stands at 60.5 per cent and extreme poverty at 42 per cent countrywide. Extreme poverty is measured using a food poverty line, which by translation means these households' total incomes will not deliver a basic food basket on the table" she said.
Ms Wakunuma said achieving the MDGs targets will require a reversal of the poverty trends.
"When nearly two thirds of a population suffer dire poverty, while the country boasts of a sustained GDP growth rate of average 6.1 per cent (ranked 27th in the world), an elevation in wealth ranking (to lower middle-income country) and one of the most investor friendly climates, it is inescapable that there is a major policy flaw in the way the country's economics are managed," she said.
Ms Wakung'uma said one of the major policy flaws is the excessive focus on market-oriented policies, which have resulted in an unfortunate neglect of the masses of Zambia's population,
This has also left the country's development to market dictates as well as a yawning gap between the 'have and have-nots'.
Ms Wakung'uma said the conclusion is obvious that the rewards from general economic growth in the country are not inclusive by not helping to narrow the inequality gap.
She said this in itself has very serious policy implications, leaving a question as to what measures are needed to close the inequality gap and raise the majority of Zambians out of poverty.
In providing solutions to the much-desired quest to attain a palatable social protection policy in the country, to address the gaps in the sector, Ms Wakung'uma said social protection is one measure that addresses some of these gaps.
"Although social protection's potential has not fully been recognised, amidst the main argument being creation of dependency and the huge demand on the limited resources," Ms Wakunuma said.
She said what social protection opponents are blind to is the fact that such interventions are inescapable, have always been part of the Zambian society (whether in the form of agricultural subsidies, welfare funds, educational bursaries, food and others in kind rations, etc).
She said the only difference is that social protection calls for support to the needy to be more predictable, proactive, sustained, and if necessary better targeted as opposed to emergency responses which are temporal, reactive, one off and rotational.
"Although this is not to say that emergency relief has no place in the social protection discourse thus the need for policy thinking that ensures relevance and effectiveness of social protection programming for as well as the need for enhanced targeting to maximise use of limited resources. As the sector formulates the policy, it would be strategic to ensure true Government leadership in social protection thinking," she said.
Since inception, the Platform for Social Protection (PSP) Zambia has stressed the importance of formulating an effective policy for social protection in Zambia.
The importance of a policy is self-explanatory in that it will help define the scope of social protection in the country and will provide stakeholders with a common understanding of Social Protection and what instrument will be used to achieve its goals.
The policy will outline the strategies and objectives that all stakeholders will contribute to and that Government will be held accountable for.
A policy as a statement of intent serves as a guide for decisions and helps achieve rational outcomes, and is a typically a reflection of commitment and as such allows leaders to be held accountable for their actions.
Bureaucratically, a policy would also help administrators to make decisions and priorities based on the relative merits of a number of factors; a policy merely guides actions toward those that are most likely to achieve a desired outcome, and most importantly, a policy helps to define spending priorities.
Ms Wakung'uma said as the country edges towards formulating a National Social Protection Policy, a comprehensive policy that will harmonise several policies that tackle issues relating to poverty and vulnerability, "it will be important to reflect on social protection, how it is defined, what it should focus on and how it should be done to have the most impact on poverty and vulnerability in the country," Ms Wakung'uma said.
Traditionally, social protection has been used in the European welfare state and other parts of the developed world to maintain a certain living standard, and address transient poverty.
One of the first examples of State-provided social protection can be tracked to the Roman Emperor Trajan, who expanded programme for free grain to include more poor citizens of the empire, and in addition he instituted public funds to support poor children. Organised welfare was not common until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The United States followed several years later, during the Great Depression, with emergency relief for those struck the hardest.
However, modern social protection has grown to envelop a much broader range of issues and purposes; it is now being used as a policy approach in developing nations, to address issues of persistent poverty and target structural causes, moreover, it is designed to lift recipients out of poverty, rather than providing passive protection against contingencies.
In defining social protection, Ms Wakung'uma notes that social protection comes in different definitions and descriptions.
"It has many forms and functions; has several different intents and results. Yet ultimately it aims to prevent poverty, provide for the poor, cushion those in poverty from falling any deeper and gives a hand up to the poor by providing them opportunity to engage in economic activity.
The misconception that has caused so much opposition to social protection is that it is a handout to the poor.
But social protection is far from this. Social protection covers everyone through different stages of the life cycle by addressing contingencies that can expose anyone to vulnerability or poverty," she said.
In Zambia, however, the definition for social protection can be found in the 2005 social protection strategy and in both the Fifth and Sixth National Development plans.
Ms Wakung'uma said the definition of social protection is more concise when viewed as is defined in the Fifth National Development Plan (FNDP), which states that 'social protection refers to policies and practices that protect and promote the livelihoods and welfare of people suffering from critical levels of poverty and deprivation and/or are vulnerable to risks and shocks'.
The subsequent document, the SNDP defines social protection as 'a poverty reduction strategy that promotes human development, social equity and human rights.
But according to PSF, the vision for the social protection sector is 'a nation with capacity to promote and provide sustainable security against constant or periodical levels of deprivation and extreme vulnerability by 2030.
According to the Vision 2030, a policy formulation guide for the country, the sector goal is to empower low capacity households and provide social assistance to incapacitated households and support to vulnerable people to live decent lives.
During the SNDP period, the focus of the sector will be to effectively coordinate and provide social protection through empowering low capacity households, providing social assistance to incapacitated households and supporting various vulnerable groups.
However, plans by Government are underway to address some of the issues raised by PSP and other civil society organisations, as contained in the PF party manifesto.
In its manifesto, the Patriotic Front (PF) sees chronic poverty as a denial of citizen's fundamental rights, as well as a waste of the country's chances to develop a proud economic and social future for all.
The manifesto also states that the party recognises the international obligations to social protection, expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other subsequent instruments, hence its commitment to adopt a comprehensive protection policy aimed at guaranteeing all citizens access to basic services and to provide additional support to those facing challenges in meeting their basic needs.
Some of the measures, outlined in the manifesto as a guide towards mapping out the way forward as regards social protection, include helping the poorest families' children have access to basic services such as access education and health.
Those classified as very vulnerable families will be assisted into self-reliance through the delivery of input packs in rural areas, and skills training/ micro-business development activities, as well as enhanced support programmes for immediate survival.
The Government hopes to attain this mammoth task by employing some measures such as increased budgetary allocation to the sector in line with its increased responsibilities, and to rehabilitate and provide community development infrastructure, such as social welfare centres, community libraries and recreational facilities.
Another measure to be instituted as outlined in manifesto is to deploy qualified staff and upgrade skills of existing staff through in-service training programmes, as well as the re-introduction of literacy and nutrition programmes in low-income communities.
To address and achieve all these, the PF Government pledges to introduce reforms to ensure efficiency and ensure secure post employment life for all retired employees and their families, use the social security schemes to advance loans to local authorities for investments in low and medium cost housing, and payment of all payment arrears to all retired employees with 24 months.
This would be done by decentralising and ensuring prompt payments of terminal benefits to retirees through established outlets in districts.
The Government also hopes to review all pieces of legislation governing social security schemes.