20 January 1995

By Jaya Daya

UNITED NATIONS (IPS)- - A United Nations report challenges assertions by the World Bank that its so-called 'social safety nets' protect the poor from the hardships of economic adjustment.

The Bank designed social safety nets in the late 1980s to relieve suffering caused by massive cuts in public social spending associated with rigourous structural adjustment programmes (SAPs).

But a new report published by the U.N. Research Institute for Social Development says these social funds and programmes have failed to serve the poorest members of society, particularly women, in countries undergoing adjustment.

Jessica Vivian, author of 'Social Safety Nets and Adjustment in Developing Countries,' argues that, in fact, ''the actual impact of the safety net scheme may have little relation to any of its stated goals,'' which include poverty alleviation.

Given the data collated on the ineffectiveness of safety net programmes, Vivian says that a rethinking of SAPs is necessary, particularly in light of the Mar. 6-12 World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen.

At that meeting, world leaders are expected to endorse new strategies aimed at reducing global poverty, creating jobs, and finding solutions to social ills and disintegration.

But a draft declaration and action plan under negotiation here by a U.N. committee of 185 countries fails to acknowledge that SAPs need to be reoriented.

The United States and other industrialised countries argue that adjustment packages, tough though they are, are necessary preconditions to the goal of poverty alleviation.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) monitoring the talks say SAPs are themselves the cause of increasing poverty and of such social disasters as conflict, worsening education and health conditions, and disenfranchisement.

Patricia Feeney, policy advisor with Oxfam/UK, told IPS the Bank's social funds, ''apart from being technically incompetent,'' are ''purely cosmetic compared to the scale of dismantling'' of public social sectors as a result of adjustment.

She said the social funds and nets have largely failed to reach those most vulnerable, and are too small to make any difference in countries where the poor represent the vast majority of people.

According to the U.N. Research Institute for Social Development, beneficiaries of safety net schemes varied from O.3 percent of the population in Ghana, 0.5 percent in Egypt, 13 percent in Honduras, 19 percent in Bolivia, and 27 percent in Mexico.

Vivian notes that these schemes suffer from a male bias, with men the overwhelming winners of safety net activities.

''Women do benefit from some of the compensatory components of safety nets, particularly nutrition interventions,'' but ''women are clearly disadvantaged, especially in the employment generation component of social funds, she said.

A survey in Bolivia indicates that 99 percent of those employed by the social fund were men, in Honduras, 75 percent of the jobs created went to men, and in India's rural employment programme, 16 percent of participants are women.

In Africa, of a sample of 30 small enterprise development projects in Zimbabwe that had reached the funding stage, only one came from a woman; in Ghana, one percent of disbursed funds were earmarked for women's projects and no attempts to reach women were made.

Vivian says that the male bias ''is neither accidental nor incidental, but built into the structure of safety net schemes.''

She says these nets are crafted without explicit gender policies and are executed by agencies and NGOs better equipped to deliver services than challenge gender roles.

Safety nets are also based on standard assumptions about the male-headed household, Vivian says.

Rather than being phased out, safety net programmes -- which were originally sold to donors as short-term emergency funds -- are being set up as semi-permanent features of public social sector restructuring.

The report says that none of 25 safety net programmes started between 1987 and 1992 have ended, while only three of 12 African programmes have a specified duration, and only six of 15 Latin American programmes have a specified termination date.

It says that because safety net programmes are heavily funded from external donors, developing countries appear to be losing control over their social policy -- as they have lost control over their economic policies.


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