Dignity and Autonomy

Personal dignity and autonomy are at the very foundation of human rights, and are inextricably linked to the principles of equality and non-discrimination. As a result, respect for the inherent dignity of all must inform all public policies. State agents, private service providers and individuals must avoid stigmatization and prejudice, and recognize and support the realization of human rights for all; especially vulnerable groups such as those living in poverty, living with HIV/AIDS and migrants. Respecting the dignity of those who receive State social security benefits implies that all actors within the social security system should recognize the efforts that beneficiaries are making to improve their lives. This also implies that minimum essential levels of social protection be set in a manner that allows a life in health and dignity (Social Protection Floors Recommendation No. 202, para 8).

Certain groups of people are of particularly vulnerable because marginalization, exclusion and stigmatization often mean that they are not reached effectively by public policies and services. Obstacles, insecurity and structural factors frequently render it impossible for them to claim their rights and to fulfil their potential independently; they need active support from the State and other relevant stakeholders. In addition, shame from a perceived failure to provide for oneself can cause some recipients of benefits to refrain from participating in social and political life. In this regard, States should ensure that social protection policies are ‘shame-proofed’ – in other words, explicitly designed to respond to the special needs of disadvantaged persons in a manner that promotes dignity and minimizes stigmatization of those receiving social security benefits by, for example, embedding anti-stigma measures (Recommendation No. 202, paras 3(c) and (d)).

Conditionalities and human rights standards

From a human rights perspective, the imposition of conditionalities in social protection programmes needs to be approached with caution because they have the potential to impede the enjoyment of human rights by certain rights holders. Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) are increasingly being implemented in many countries on the assumption that they strengthen human capital, and in the long term contribute to breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty. A rights-based perspective calls for critical scrutiny, however.

The imposition of conditionalities, also called “co-responsibilities”, requires people to fulfil certain commitments such as sending children to school or getting regular health checks in order to receive all or some of their social protection benefits. Although these commitments can contribute to strengthen rights to education or health, they may suggest that people living in poverty cannot make rational choices to improve their lives, which could have the undesired consequence of reinforcing prevalent stereotypes about the poor—that they are careless and irresponsible. In this sense, conditionalities run the risk of violating the right to dignity of the poor.

Under international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), States parties are obliged to immediately meet minimum essential levels to the rights of food, health, housing, education and social security. These are inherent human rights and not conditional on the performance of certain actions or meeting requirements.

Conditionalities, although designed to improve life quality and access to social protection, may increase the demand for public services in parts of the world where the services available are not adequate in quality or quantity. For example, people— women and girls in particular— may be prevented from complying with conditionalities imposed by a social protection programme if health clinics are far away from their homes, the quality of service is too low, or they face communication difficulties or encounter officials with a discriminatory approach. They may also have the unintended consequence of placing a strain on service providers in areas without the resources to serve the increased number of clients. Social protection programmes, therefore, must ensure that adequate services necessary for compliance with the programme requirements are provided. Public services providers must be trained in culturally appropriate practices and the specific needs of women, in particular those suffering from multiple forms of discrimination (such as indigenous women or women with disabilities).

When conditionalities are imposed, additional costs will be incurred for administration and monitoring. To meet these costs, resources may be used which otherwise could have served to improve social services. Also, rights holders often incur significant opportunity costs in order to meet the conditionalities imposed on them.

The gender impact of CCTs is a concern from a rights-based perspective. Many CCT programmes channel the money through women, who are then assigned the responsibility of carrying out the conditionalities. This increases the demand on their time, especially in the absence of support services such as childcare, and constrains their ability to engage in remunerative work or leisure. When gender dimensions are not appropriately addressed, they may also reinforce gendered divisions of labour.