Building on indigenous solidarity models to strengthen the culture of social security in Africa

Building on indigenous solidarity models to strengthen the culture of social security in Africa

While Africa is the region with the lowest formal social security coverage rates, socio-economic security also relies on African kinship and community support systems and mechanisms that play an important role in the protection of people faced with the contingencies of life.

A knowledge based appraisal of social security coverage in Africa reveals a dichotomy between formal and informal economic activities with different implications on social security coverage. It is estimated that only 17.4 per cent of the African population receives at least one form of social protection benefit (ILO, 2021). Reported figures most often hinge on coverage rates based on formal employment i.e. social insurance, and state-financed social assistance interventions. On the other hand, protection through families such as children catering for the health and financial needs of their parents at old age or protection through mutual community benefit systems are also offering socio-economic security to different population groups.

Additionally, informal and agrarian economic settings that dominate the employment landscape in Africa have pushed population groups to make recourse to mundane social protection arrangements like rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs) and non-cash based mutual benefit arrangements, which play a fundamental role in communities across the region. Coverage rates are low due to underinvestment in social protection benefits and services. However, it is important to point out that these figures are lower than actual number of persons with effective access to some form of protection against socio-economic vulnerability.

Institutions such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP) define social protection as a set of nationally defined policies and measures aimed at addressing socio-economic vulnerability, poverty and deprivation (, 2022). They focus on labour regulation and labour market policies, state provision through social assistance and prevention through social insurance and employer liability arrangements to address the perennial challenge of securing access to basic income and essential health care for all.

Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler (2004) provide a broader definition, asserting that “social protection includes all public and private initiatives that provide income or consumption transfers to the poor, protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks and enhance the social status and rights of the marginalised”. Thus reflecting the growing recognition of interventions such as school feeding programmes, food-for-work programmes, fee waivers, subsidies, as well as labour intensive public works programmes as forms of social security protection.

In seeking solutions to the perennial challenge of providing social security protection to all, it will be relevant for the policy discourse on expanding and extending social security coverage to take account of the strengths and weaknesses of the African kinship and community support system to ascertain workable and acceptable solutions in response to the African reality.

The African kinship and community support system of social protection

Social protection is not a novelty to Africans. From a socio-economic stand point, the goal of social protection is to guarantee the right to decent and better lives for all by addressing socio-economic vulnerability, deprivation, poverty and want. Long before the formal recognition of social protection as a universal and fundamental human right (UDHR, 1948), Africans pursued the course towards better lives for all through a set of social obligations constituting the African kinship and community support systems in the spirit of Ubuntu.

Basically, “Ubuntu” is the African belief and value system based on socio-cultural solidarity and aimed at ensuring that no one suffers tragedy alone (Mugumbate and Nyanguru, 2013). It tallies with the modern-day social protection arrangements of social insurance, social assistance and employer liability. Yet, it transcends the narrow focus on legal obligations to engulf de facto principles of humanity and goodwill aimed at safeguarding the well-being and betterment of person(s) and humanity.

The onus in designing effective social protection policies and programmes in Africa resides in the persistent ambiguity between the state and government. International human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN, 1966), which allots a badge of enforceability to the fundamental right to social security generally make reference to the state in lieu of the government. This prompts the generalised recognition of nationally defined programmes to constitute the core of social protection interventions in countries across the spectrum.

However, it is crucial to point out that while the notion of the state is relatively new in Africa – post‑colonial states, indigenous governments and governance mechanism established the basis of the social contract in Africa wherein designated community leaders or the head of the kin played the role of the government with the duty to safeguard values and enforce the mutual socio‑economic rights and obligations amongst members of the community in fulfilment of the right to decent and better lives for all.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – UDHR, 1948 recognises social security as a fundamental human right (article 22), and goes further to assert what constitutes the right to social protection i.e. the right to adequate health care and decent living conditions as well as the right to social security protection in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age and related contingencies of life and livelihood (article 25) (UN, 1948). These contingencies are culled into the ILO Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102) to constitute the nine branches of social security. (ILO, 1952).

Subsequent developments allotted credence to the primacy of fulfilling the right to social security for all over the counter productive debates on institutional and financing arrangements under which the right is fulfilled. Thus, bringing about the adoption of the ILO Social Protection Floors Recemmendation, 2012 (No. 202) that refines the debate on basic social security to universal social security, including social protection floors comprising mimimum social security guarantees with effective access to essential health care and a basic income security over the course of life. (ILO, 2012)

Identical to the Convention (No. 102), the Recommendation (No. 202) spotlights the importance of nationally defined policies backed by legislation and an adequate financing strategy as crucial elements of national social protection systems. Clearly, both instruments pay due regard to the duty of the state to provide and protect in fulfilment of the fundamental human right to social security with a focus on regulation and financing. However, the implementation of both instruments also requires a clear strategy and connection to non-state regulated interventions that dominate the social solidarity landscape and contribute to socio-economic security in Africa.

For instance, African indigeneous communities involved in subsistence and small-scale farming operate labour exchange and solidarity programmes which equate to sickness or maternity benefits programmes. In substance, mutual labour exchange programmes in agrarian communities are designed in a way such that any sick member benefits from the labour inputs of other members of the group who work to cultivate or harvest for the sick member in an event of sickness. Thus, ensuring that farming activities of any individual are not disrupted due to ill-health or confinement.

Additionally, care – childcare, aged and/or health related care, are more of a kin and community responsibility in lieu of a paid service. This plays in favour of the greater solidarity amongst community members wherein any parent who can afford food, care or shelter provides for all children within reach in natural rotating arrangements amongst parents. In the alternative, immediate family members such as children or siblings will naturally pick up the responsibility to cater for the needs of the family – both financial and in-kind, when other member(s) of the kin are faced with the contingencies of life.

These can de facto play a similar role for individuals as formal social security interventions. However, the ever-evolving nature of societal and human relations have brought the African kinship and community support system of social protection under strains, making the transition to formalised and legalised arrangements inevitable. It is essential that this transition is taking account of existing solidarity mechanisms, complements them in a valuable way and does not impact negatively on their further development.

Practices of member institutions of the International Social Security Association (ISSA) in Africa point to the fact that policy makers and practitioners in the field of social security are taking stock and making strides in the transition from mundane indigenous arrangements to formal and state regulated social protection arrangements in a mix of strategies and measures such as education and sensitisation, the transfer of kinship and community risks to the state as well as recognition and regulation of community initiatives.

Education and sensitisation

Education and sensitisation play a crucial role in developing a required behaviour. Individuals and society turn to build virtues and values based on the information and practices they are exposed to in the course of life, especially during the early ages of life. Conscious of this reality, ISSA member institutions in Africa are increasingly inclined towards creating awareness on the existence and merits of social security protection to the public as a means to stimulate adherence and extend coverage to uncovered population groups.

For instance, the Seychelles Pension Fund developed Educational cartoon strips in national media as a means to bridge information and knowledge gaps on social security legislation, counter fake news and to stimulate adherence and enhance the take-up of social security rights as well as the performance of social security obligations with a focus on members, employers and employees. Through the initiative, the scheme witnessed a decline in the number of compliants received through social media platforms with a significant increase in the number of friend requests on the scheme’s Facebook account (Seychelles Pension Fund, 2021a). Thus creating a community of knowledge on social security rights and obligations between users and administrators of the scheme.

Similarly, the Pension Fund of Morocco (Caisse marocaine des retraites – CMR) rolled out the Forum theatre as a communication channel aimed at developing the culture of social security amongst the population by communicating changes in behaviour and to raise awareness on social security governance and administration, the national reform of retirement systems and the need for its implementation as well as retirement and the associated rights and duties. The initiative brought about a positive perception of the brand image and profile of the institutions alongside the dissemination of social security knowledge to a wider audience with far-reaching impacts on adherence to and take-up of social security benefits amongst insured persons and their families (Pension Fund of Morocco, 2021).

Transfering kinship and community risks to the state

Fundamentally, social security is a set of interventions aimed at risk pooling and risks sharing amongst participants under well-defined criteria. While it is selective in terms of choosing people under identical or similar circumstances such as formal sector employees covered under mandatory insurance programmes, informal and own account workers covered under voluntary insurance programmes or persons in trade or associations protected by mutual benefits societies, the fundamental principle of risk pooling and risk sharing remains undisturbed and is identical to the African indigenous solidarity doctrine of Ubuntu.

Nevertheless, the practice of Ubuntu in its orthodox manner, focusing on kinship and community is both mundane and less responsive to the rapidly changing nature of risks faced by people in an increasingly globalised world. The advent of globalistion in the 20th century brought about a shift from subsistence agriculture to the widespread production of cash crops by agro-industrial entities. This led to the progressive erosion of community based labour exchange arrangements and the rise in paid-work. Thus exposing the need for the transition to formal social security arrangements financed by employer and employee contribution.

Furthermore, industrialisation brought about the mechanisation of agriculture and a crowd-out of labour from the agricultural to the industrial sector. However, the number of jobs created in the industrial sector was generally lower than the number of jobs lost in the agricultural mechanisation process. These alongside urbanisation prompted rural exodus and economic migration from rural communicities with a paucity of socio-economic opportunities to urban and foreign dwellings for active population groups. In the absence of adequate socio-economic opportunies in urban or foreign destinations, job seekers end up in informal and sometimes unregulated economic activities with high levels of vulnerability.

Additionally, the HIV/AIDS pandemic eroded the second generation in some communities across Africa, creating hikes in dependency ratios in the quasi-totality of countries across the spectrum. To address the combined effects of the rising socio-economic vulnerability due to rural exodus and migration as well as the HIV/AIDS pandemic, governments’ and development partners have made recourse to social assistance interventions with a rise in (conditional) cash transfers, means-tested benefits and social pensions especially in countries within the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

However, fiscal consolidation measures targeting social spending raises fundamental concerns with respect to the stability of state financed social assistance interventions. This has prompted social security administrations to build on existing solidarity patterns to formalise the African indegeneous Ubuntu practice into formal and state regulated arrangements.

This obtained in Seychelles through the Seychelles Pension Fund Voluntary contribution starter gift vouchers. The programme is designed to take advantage of the inherent nature of African indigenous people to cater for the kin and loved ones in the spirit of Ubuntu. Under the programme, well-to-do members of the kin subscribed for an insurance product for loved ones via the voluntary insurance framework in lieu of providing assurance or taking over responsibility when contingencies such as old-age, invalidity or death fall due. In this regard, the responsibility of catering for the financially less viable is transferred from the kin and community to the state at the maturation of the insurance product (Seychelles Pension Fund, 2020b).

The novelty of the programme is that the subscriber can authorise his/her employer to retain the amount of contributions for the loved one directly from his/her earnings and pay over to the fund, thereby addressing the issues pertaining to default in payments common with voluntary insurance programmes.

Recognition and regulation

Economic growth recorded during the last decades is still to deliver on the expectation of more and better jobs in the formal sectors of the economy (ILO, 2018). In response to this reality, governments and policy makers embark on designing programmes and implementing measures to catalyse the transition from informal to formal employment. Yet, the gains are marginal if informality is endemic in economies and societies.

Cognisant of the challenges and apprised of state duty to guarantee social security protection for all, governments are designing strategies to extend social security to the informal economy with a focus on economic actors constituting the so-called difficult-to-cover groups. Key amongst the measures deployed is the opening of mandatory insurance schemes to informal and own account workers on a voluntary basis as well as the recognition and regulation of mutual benefits organisations.

In Tunisia, the National Social Security Fund (Caisse nationale de sécurité sociale – CNSS) rolled out the Social Security Coverage Extension Programme dubbed Protect Me (Protège-moi). Informed by the ISSA Guidelines on Administrative Solutions for Coverage Extension, the programme was designed to extend social security protection to rural women and other low‑income self‑employed and temporal workers of the agricultural sector. It stemmed from the amendment of legislation to incorporate initially precluded population groups and capitalised on a partnership between the Fund and ministries for social affairs, women, agriculture and communication technologies; a telecommunications provider; and a private tech start-up to facilitate registration and enhance compliance with the payment of contributions (National Social Security Fund, 2020).

In a similar development, the Local Authorities Pension Trust in Kenya took advantage of community practice of “saving for the rainy day” to scale-up registration and enhance compliance under the voluntary insurance scheme through the “Save As You Spend” initiative. The initiative works on the premise that current spending should be accompanied by micro-savings for future consumption to incite workers in the informal sector to register to the social security scheme and comply with the payment of contributions through the accumulation of micro-decuctions from their mobile money wallets each time an expenditure is effected (Local Authorities Pension Trust, 2020).

Final remarks

Effective access to adequate social protection plays a crucial role in addressing socio-economic vulnerability, deprivation and want. Nonetheless, fulfliing the right to social security for all poses a perennial challenge to governments and social security administrations in Africa due to widespread informality and the lack of opportunities to extend contributory social security coverage amidst a growing demand for benefits and services.

Africa is the region with the lowest social security coverage rates across the globe due inadequate investment in social assistance programmes admist high levels of informality and socio-economic vulnerability which inhibit the extension of contributory social security.

In the face of this reality, ISSA member institutions in the region are leveraging existing solidarity mechanisms based on the African indegeneous practice of Ubuntu. This triggers new dynamics in extending social security coverage through education and sensitisation, the transfer of kinship and community risks to the state as well as the recognition and regulation of community initiatives. Thus, it brings about an enhanced recognition of kinship and community interventions as a complementary pillar of national social protection systems.

Existing knowledge and practices of ISSA member institutions in Africa affirm that:

  1. The absence of scholarly knowledge and information on the number of persons covered by informal and non-state regulated forms of social protection interventions constituting the African indegeneous kinship and community support system of social protection makes measuring socio-economic insecurity more difficult.
  2. The further extension of social security coverage in Africa is feasible by refining the policy discourse and operational practices to take advantage of the African indigenous practice of Ubuntu in the formalisation of social security arrangements to expand and extend coverage.

African states are increasing conscious of the duty and responsive in addressing the challenges inherent in the extension of social security coverage. Developing knowledge on the African indigenous practice of Ubuntu and its contribution to national social protection strategies will be a great potential to inform the policy discourse on expanding and extending coverage in countries across the spectrum.


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