Understanding social security

Social security: A fundamental human right

The development of social security programmes and systems is one of the most significant social policy achievements of the 20th century. Nonetheless, the enhancement and extension of social security will remain major challenges for the decades to come.

What is social security?

Social security may be defined  as any programme of social protection established by legislation, or any  other mandatory arrangement, that provides individuals with a degree of  income security when faced with the contingencies of old age,  survivorship, incapacity, disability, unemployment or rearing children.  It may also offer access to curative or preventive medical care.

As  defined by the International Social Security Association, social  security can include social insurance programmes, social assistance  programmes, universal programmes, mutual benefit schemes, national  provident funds, and other arrangements including market-oriented  approaches that, in accordance with national law or practice, form part  of a country's social security system.

A universal right

The first social security programmes based on compulsory insurance were established in Europe in the late-19th century. It was during the 20th century, however, that national social security programmes developed more widely around the globe, not least as a result of decolonisation and the institution of new independent states after World War Two. The development of social security has also been supported by various international conventions and instruments, and the recognition of social security as a basic human right was enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a few countries, for example Germany and Brazil, social security is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Today, most countries have some type of social security system. Worldwide, the most common type of programme is for old-age, disability, and survivors' pensions, followed by programmes for benefits for work injuries and occupational diseases, sickness and maternity, family allowances and unemployment.

Limited access

According to available estimates, around 50 per cent of the global population has access to some form of social security, while only 20 per cent enjoy adequate social security coverage.

The need to extend coverage is therefore a key challenge for social security organisations in all regions. However this can only be done while also addressing wider policy issues, including the demographic ageing of populations, evolving family structures, the impacts of economic globalization, the growth of informal labour markets, and epidemiological and environmental developments.

Social security is key to long term social and economic development

The social importance of social security systems for society is now widely accepted. However, there is less unanimity regarding the economic importance of social security systems. Regardless, that social security systems should be understood as a productive factor in economic development is a view that is gaining ground.

When arguing the case for the economic importance of social security provision, European social security history is particularly instructive. Many European countries introduced social security programmes early in their development; before they were rich societies. European history also shows that efficient economies and efficient social security systems can grow hand-in-hand, and that the latter is not a brake on the former. Clearly, all countries must develop their social security systems according to their own socio-economic needs and circumstances. Nonetheless, on the basis of European experience, the message for developing countries is a clear one: effective and efficient social security systems are key to long term social and economic development.

Dynamic Social Security and the way forward 

The ISSA is fostering the concept of Dynamic Social Security (DSS), which promotes the innovative use of integrated, proactive and forward-looking social security policies with the near-term aim of building high-performing social security organizations. Underlying this idea is the view that effective and well governed organizations are vital for social security's credibility and, ultimately, its sustainability. Building on this first step, the longer-term aim of DSS is to contribute to providing universal access, at least, to basic cash benefits and primary health care in all countries.

Throughout its history, social security has never stopped adapting, However, today, after more than a century of existence, the challenge remains one of making the right to ‘social security for all' a reality.

Upcoming events Upcoming events