Non-Contributive pensions from a human rights perspective

It is well known the debate about how the different policies of the “Washington Consensus” have not only increased extreme poverty but also high levels of inequalities around the world. On the other hand, demographic changes amid volatile and fluctuating periods of economic boom and bust threaten to generate various social dislocations on the sustainability of welfare systems and social security.

As a result of this, in recent years a global and spontaneous reaction of social protection has emerged as a response to these social dislocations, this time caused and promoted by International Financial Institutions (IFIs). This reaction is taking place in a context that is totally different from what the Political Economist Karl Polanyi experienced more than 50 years ago and it has brought some minimal assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable older people. IFis such as the World Bank have provided a name for these “new products” known as “non-contributory assistance”, delivered as part of their Social Protection and Labor Strategy and what they argue is that these new products constitute a solid source of income for the elderly by way of non-contributory income assistance in order to prevent and eradicate extreme poverty. In Latin america, for instance these new products were initially promoted in the form of transfer programs such as the “Progresa” program developed in Mexico in 1997. On the other hand, the international Community also argues that these measures has been adopted to influence governments so that they may fulfill their commitments to adhere to the “Social Protection Floors” a new initiative promoted by the International Labour Organisation which aims to provide a vital minimum to guarantee the rights of individuals. It is precisely here in the context of these type of initiatives that the new non-contributory transfer programs play a substantial role as new mechanisms that are seeking not only poverty reduction but also to ensure a minimum welfare for the elderly. “Social Protection Floors”  consists of integrated set of social policies designed to guarantee everyone income security and access to essential social services provided with special attention to vulnerable groups and seeks to protect and empower people through income security, promoted through minimal cash transfers (in cash or in kind), such as pensions for the elderly or for people with disabilities. Non-contributory transfer programs for the elderly consists of cash transfers allocated by the State to those over a certain age. However, despite all these measures adopted until now by the international community, these type of cash transfers are part of a policy that is still minimalist, millions of older people around the world are “invisible” living in poverty and marginalization.

Applying a Rights-based approach to non-contributory pensions should start from the premise that change must be promoted not only primarily at the internal level but also external, that States must change their practices and actions at the same time that protect and guarantee the rights of the elderly population through effective and efficient policies. This entails that the human rights approach seeks to make internal adjustments at the institutional level, strengthening institutional capacity so that the State is able to adapt to external changes and risks whether demographic or economic, while at the same time adopts measures not only to protect immediately the human rights of older people but also ensuring that such rights are progressively realized. A Rights-based approach promotes Capacity Building, forcing States to assess if the measures that has been adopted are integrating and operationalizing human rights principles. A human rights approach implies that States must guarantee the obligation of Results, Conduct and Resources to enable the full enjoyment of human rights of older people.

In Latin America there is currently a reluctance among some States to perceive non-contributory pension programs from a human rights perspective. Despite having approved a Convention for the protection for the elderly, a binding instrument that establishes clear principles to promote and protect the fundamental freedoms and human rights of the elderly, however, thousands of older people in Colombia are found themselves in extreme poverty because of the minimal assistance provided by the Colombian State. The international community and the special procedures of the United Nations have developed recommendations documenting and analyzing the major human rights at the international level in relation to non-contributory pensions. The United Nations Rapporteur on extreme poverty (United Nations, 2010) for instance, proposes that the analysis from a human rights perspective on non-contributory pension must begin with recognizing the Right to Social Security of older people, ensuring at the same time access and priority to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and promoting the Admissibility, Transparency, Access to Information, Accountability, Participation, Adequacy of benefits, Access to health care and  Equality of gender.
There is currently a lack of commitment by States in relation to the integration and operationalization of human rights principles. States should develop new strategies to strengthen institutions in charge of monitoring. This strategy must be implemented along with the promotion of a human rights culture not only in order to promote the principle of Responsibility which will allow the fulfilment of the commitments acquired at the international level, but also, in order to achieve the new objectives of sustainable economic development.


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