EU Policy Priorities

Social Protection refers to nationally defined systems of policies that provide income security and access to health services for all people, and equip and protect them throughout their lives to protect them against poverty and risks to their livelihoods.

Significant gaps in social protection coverage and inadequacy of benefits still persist. Only 45% of the world’s population have access to at least one type of social protection benefit, while the remaining 55% – 4 billion people – are left unprotected (ILO 2017). This limited coverage is first of all a result of lack of adequate spending on social protection schemes. While the share of social protection expenditure in partner countries differs considerably across and within regions, the level of spending is highly correlated to the level of income of the countries (ILO 2020).

Faced with the need to create fiscal space to ensure scaled up delivery of social protection, including contingency measures to respond to crisis situations, governments are challenged in mobilising adequate funding. Furthermore, partner countries have to plan their pathway to achieving universal social protection for all members of society. As a first step, they determine the design of the national social protection floor to guarantee income security and access to health services across the life cycle. The process requires a policy dialogue and country-based diagnostic on priorities and social protection programmes, and how to fund them without placing excessive strains on national budgets.

An extensive body of evaluations shows that social protection can play a key role in reducing poverty and inequality. As such, it is a key driver for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, and has a significant contribution to make to the achievement of goal 1, to end poverty in all its forms everywhere, and goal 10 to reduce inequalities. The SDG target 1.3 specifically calls for the implementation of nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, and for the achievement of substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable by 2030. Social protection is also instrumental in making progress towards other SDGs.

The New European Consensus on Development aligns the Union’s development policy with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and strongly reaffirms the EU commitment to social protection.

Already in 2012, the Communication on "Social Protection in European Union Development Cooperation" (COM(2012)446) highlighted the importance of nationally owned social protection systems to contribute to poverty reduction, enhance people’s resilience in the face of shocks and structural transformation, and contribute to peace, stabilisation and economic growth. It also confirms the EU recognition of social protection as a human right.

Social protection instruments, typically being included in national comprehensive social protection systems, encompass a range of non-contributory schemes to individuals or households in need, as well as contributory schemes, where only those who financially contribute into a scheme’s fund can receive a benefit. As explained in INTPA’s Tools & Methods Reference Document, they consist of:

  • Social assistance (non-contributory transfers in cash, vouchers, or in-kind; public works programmes; fee waivers (i.e. for basic health care or education) and subsidies (i.e. for food, etc.).
  • Social insurance, which is made of contributory schemes providing support in the event of contingencies (illness, injury, maternity/paternity, unemployment, old age, disability, death, survivor).
  • Social care services for those facing risks of discrimination and social exclusion.
  • Labour market programmes which can be ‘active’ to strengthen skills and competencies to promote labour market participation or ‘passive’ to ensure minimum employment standards.


During the last decade, there has also been a growing focus on bringing together humanitarian, risk-reduction, resilience-building and developmental approaches to generate more predictable, organised, effective, efficient and flexible responses. This is highlighted in the Communication on Forced Displacement and Development (COM(2016) 234) and in the conclusions of the Council of the European Union (EU) on operationalising the humanitarian-development nexus (9383/17). It has led to a commitment to connect humanitarian assistance to social protection systems, recognising the potential for significant efficiency, impact and sustainability gains and in this context, interest in ‘shock-responsive’ or ‘adaptive’ social protection has emerged. This new field focusses on boosting the role of social protection in building household resilience before shocks occur; and at the same time on increasing the capability of social protection systems and programmes to respond to shocks after they occur (World Bank: Adaptive social protection 2020).

With the COVID19 outbreak in 2020, besides the immediate health response, social protection has quickly emerged as an effective crisis response mechanism to the socio-economic impact of the pandemic and thus gained considerable importance in international cooperation.

EU Strategic Priorities

In order to contribute to the desired impact of reducing poverty and inequality, EU-funded interventions aim to deliver towards a variety of outcomes, depending on their focus and local context:

  1. Nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures implemented for all
  2. Increasingly efficient, effective and fair social protection financing and spending
  3. Legal and policy frameworks for social protection based on pro-poor and gender-and disability-sensitive development strategies designed and enforced
  4. Adequate social protection benefits (in cash, in kind, as service) provided
  5. Harmonisation and standardisation of social protection provision, moving from selective, short-term safety nets to comprehensive systems (Social Protection Floors)
  6. Enhanced effectiveness of social protection systems and provision through adoption of digital technologies
  7. Increased participation of civil society and social partners with the state to develop social protection systems and monitor performance
  8. Adaptive/shock responsive social protection systems (ASP/SRSP) developed that can be rapidly scaled up to address recurrent natural disasters and/or can function in fragile states and post-conflict situations
  9. Social protection is extended to difficult to reach target groups, including people in urban settings, those in the informal economy, migrants and displaced people and other specific target groups
  10. Social protection promotes structural transformation towards greener economies and societies, actively addressing climate change
  11. Social protection policies and instruments are nutrition-sensitive.


As of December 2020, the EU is implementing Social Protection programmes in 29 partner countries. Almost half of this EUR 1.75 billion investment in Social Protection is implemented through budget support. About 75% of these programmes is spent to support social transfers to individuals.

In 2020, COVID-19 has revealed the structural weaknesses of social protection systems, one could say that the pandemic is like a stress test revealing the strengths and weaknesses of our societies and social systems and mercilessly exposing existing structural flaws. The European Union, its Member States and the European financial institutions, acting together as ‘Team Europe’, have taking comprehensive and decisive action to tackle the destructive impact of COVID-19 with a special focus on attenuating social, health, and economic consequences. The European Commission has adapted its priorities and programmes with partner countries to address the crisis. The action and solution implemented in these difficult times time promote an equitable, sustainable and inclusive recovery and aim at building back better.

Regarding the main priorities of INTPA (Africa-EU Partnership; Green Deal; Digital Partnerships; Resilience, Peace & Security; Migration and Forced Displacement), it is obvious that more comprehensive and sustainable social protection systems are likely to contribute to achieving these priorities.

Team Europe Initiatives (TEIs) also play a key part in the future programming. They consist of broader political and cross-sectoral approaches and bring together the collective European experiences and capacities with the aim of better supporting our partner countries’ priorities, thus reinforcing shared values and interests. They will be complementary to the countries’ priority sectors.

Policy and Strategic Documents

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