Social protection has increasingly been recognised as one of the most effective measures to tackle poverty and inequality. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Social Protection Floors Recommendation (no. 202) promotes four guarantees to ensure basic income security throughout the life cycle. Target 1.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals specifically calls for social protection for all, including social protection floors. The Asia and Pacific region has seen noticeable expansion in social protection coverage in this century. For example, a number of programmes have been introduced in the ASEAN countries, supported by the ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection and an action plan for its implementation.

However, the majority of people continue to lack basic social protection benefits. According to the ILO, 61 per cent of people in Asia and the Pacific continue to be unprotected by any type of social protection. Governments often claim that financial constraints are the reason for the persistent low coverage of social protection, yet many low- and middle-income countries have accepted this important role of government to protect its citizens and have introduced sustainable and affordable programmes.

Pensions are the main form of social protection for older women and men in the world, including in this region. Yet nearly half (45 per cent) of older people do not receive any type of pension. Contributory and non-contributory pensions are the two main approaches. Offering pension coverage through the contributory channel, which requires individuals to contribute throughout their working lives, has been challenging. The coverage gap is particularly glaring in countries where there is persistent informality in the labour force, which is the reality of most low- and middle-income countries. Once it was optimistically assumed that as countries developed economically, an increasing share of their workforce would be covered by formal employment-based protections. The evidence suggests this anticipated trend has been elusive. People in the informal sector are typically unable to save for old age, usually having low and irregular incomes. Women are particularly disadvantaged due to their lower wages and shorter and more frequently interrupted working lives, as they are often the main carers of dependent family members – young children and family members who are older, ill or have disabilities.

On the other hand, universal social pension programmes have been effective in increasing pension coverage in many low- and middle-income countries, as the coverage of contributory systems has stagnated. Women benefit disproportionately because a social pension responds to their cumulative disadvantages over the life-course, and more women benefit as they outnumber men because of their longer lifespans.

There has been a rise in the introduction and expansion of social pensions in recent years. For instance, Thailand changed from a poverty-tested scheme to a near-universal national programme in 2009, the Philippines introduced a poverty-tested scheme in 2010, and Myanmar introduced a universal national pension in 2017, as described in the box.

* Social pensions are tax-financed, non-contributory cash transfers paid to older people on a regular basis.