Inter-sectoral Coordination, Social Protection and Human Rights: A virtuous circle

Date: 3 March 2016
Author: Alexandra Barrantes

Inter-sectoral Coordination, Social Protection and Human Rights: A virtuous circle

Social protection has become an ever more important policy discussion in the social development agenda. Significant advances have been made in the social protection field in the Americas and normative and institutional frameworks have been established within the countries to further strengthen social protection policies.

Nevertheless, challenges still remain in developing and consolidating integrated and universal social protection systems in the region. In particular, some challenges that still need to be stressed are the existence of fragmented visions and the lack of comprehensive, coherent and coordinated policies, as well as a silo approach to social protection that fails to integrate different sectors and agencies.

Hence, it is considered that a rights-based approach (RBA) provides a conceptual as well as the necessary legal framework for working towards more integrated and universal social protection systems. This works in both directions, because more integrated and less fragmented social protection programmes and policies will pave the way for a RBA to social protection, guaranteeing universal systems.


In addition to the universal human rights framework, the Inter-American Human Rights System1 provides a solid social protection framework, as it recognizes the right to social security2 for all persons. Furthermore, as recently as 2015, the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons introduced, in addition to the right to social security, the right of older persons to receive long-term care,3 encompassing a comprehensive system of care that protects and promotes their health, provides social services coverage, food and nutrition security, water, clothing and housing, and promotes their ability to stay in their own homes and maintain their independence and autonomy, should they so decide.

The Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Protocol of San Salvador), provides a solid regional follow-up mechanism, allowing the monitoring of the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights, including social security. The mechanism put in motion by the Organization of American States (OAS) established a Working Group to analyze national progress reports, as well as regional indicators4 (structural, process and outcome) approved by all OAS member States showing the proportion of population covered by non-contributory systems, as well as indicators on contributory schemes.

The progress indicators created by countries in the region also recognize certain conceptual categories and cross-cutting principles that are key for evaluating public policies – including social protection- and progress towards the realization of social rights.

The three conceptual categories are:

  • Incorporation of the right;
  • Financial context and budgetary commitment; and
  • State capabilities;

The three cross-cutting principles are:

a) equality and non-discrimination
b) access to justice, and
c) access to information and participation.

One key factor in analyzing some of the obstacles to comprehensive social protection systems and the lack of coordination is measuring State capabilities. In this context “fragmentation among different levels of government and among different organized social services, often due to poor interagency coordination and communication or the absence of comprehensive policies and adequate record-keeping, is an indicator of weakness in state capabilities”.5 When fragmentation exists in social policy service delivery it is unclear who is responsible for what, thus making it harder for States, who have the overall responsibility of guaranteeing social rights, to be held fully accountable for said services. Given that social protection policies, programmes and services are generally delivered and implemented by different agencies and various levels of government, it is essential to address this important issue of possible fragmentation and lack of coordination. Moreover, there needs to be clarity in the definition and distribution of responsibilities among all government agencies and different government levels to better coordinate social protection policies.

When the United Nations adopted the Social Protection Floor Initiative, countries recognized the strategic importance of universal social protection by emphasizing that “the social protection floor requires coherence in policies and coordination among different social policies to prevent individuals and families from falling and becoming trapped in poverty and deprivation.”6 More recently, the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which was approved last year, also provides an opportunity to advance towards social protection systems. In particular, Target 1.3 calls for the need to “implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable”.7

Significant advances have also been made on the regional social development agenda. Social development agencies within the OAS high-level political forum have defined that social protection is an integral approach comprised of various universal and targeted policies and programmes seeking to help individuals confront the risks they face across the life cycle. 8 In addition, institutions charged with social development policies have stressed that given that poverty and inequality are multidimensional phenomena, they require inter-sectoral and coordinated interventions in the framework of a national social development strategy[9]. Thus, inter-sectoral coordination has been deemed as essential to broaden the impact of a diversity of social policy interventions, calling on all sectors of society —including civil society, non-governmental, academic, private sector and community organizations— to collaborate, notwithstanding the central role of the State in the fight against poverty, inequity, inequality and social exclusion.

Within the framework of the Social Charter of the Americas (Social Charter), OAS member States have recognized that they have a responsibility to develop and implement comprehensive social protection policies and programmes, based on the principles of universality, solidarity, equality, non-discrimination, and equity that give priority to persons living in conditions of poverty and vulnerability, taking into account the circumstances of each nation.9 The lines of action10 which countries agreed upon to implement the Social Charter further strengthen social protection systems by encouraging the implementation of nationally defined social protection floors, promoting solid, comprehensive, and sustainable social protection systems; organizing social protection systems to ensure comprehensive coverage and an equitable distribution of benefits; and promoting a comprehensive social protection approach that addresses the different dimensions and manifestations of poverty, vulnerability and exclusion, and reduces inequalities through a wide range of measures and an intergenerational and life- cycle perspective.

Although many countries in the region have advanced considerably in conceptualizing a RBA to social protection as well as establishing national normative frameworks, there are still challenges for universal, integral and inter-sectoral social protection systems. In this sense, it is crucial to move forward towards comprehensive social protection systems, by articulating the progress made in the contributory and non-contributory social protection schemes, and by resolving the fragmentation between different programmes, policies and social protection efforts. Inter-sectoral coordination is essential to maximize the impact of various interventions in social policy, including formal employment, productive inclusion and income generation, strengthening food security policies, education and health policies, and the protection of communities to risks and vulnerabilities arising from disasters, among others.

Taking into account the multidimensional nature of the causes of poverty and inequality, the frequent duplication of efforts and limited resources, it is crucial to provide solutions that take into account all related sectors without over-extending the objectives and the scope of social protection. Hence the urgent need to promote inter-sectoral coordination11 and to include all the actors and stakeholders involved. A new generation of programmes, policies and strategies for social protection requires cross-sectoral coordination as one of the cornerstones.

As social protection systems are considered to “have the potential to contribute towards the fulfilment of basic human rights such as the right to food, education and health and to combat systemic inequality”12; there is need for more coordination and less fragmentation of social protection policies as a condition for a human rights approach and as a catalyst for more efficient policies. Because social protection schemes that are based on a RBA “are more likely to be sustainable and to effectively contribute to the eradication of poverty13”; inter-sectoral coordination and comprehensive social protection systems become a crucial element in the equation.

Related to this is the integration of a life cycle perspective into the field of social protection. From the point of view of a RBA, social protection, and all that it involves, is an inalienable life-spanning right contributing to human development and should therefore be promoted and supported by inter-sectoral action for individuals of all ages as participants in their own development. A RBA to social protection brings in the elements of participation, entitlement and empowerment and opens the way for marginalized individuals in particular to have their needs and priorities addressed in social protection policies. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) emphasizes the need to promote an inclusive social protection that is sensitive to different dimensions of exclusion and its manifestations, while promoting an intergenerational approach14. For its part, the Social Protection Floor Initiative emphasizes the importance of ensuring transfers and services during the life cycle, ensuring the welfare of children, workers with insufficient incomes and the elderly, with special emphasis on vulnerable groups.

Within this context it can be affirmed that the region has an adequate normative and political consensus to be able to advance towards more comprehensive and integrated social protection systems based on a human rights based approach. A human rights-based approach to social protection opens the door to affirmative action, brings in the participation of rights holders throughout the life cycle, provides a wide range of instruments for the expansion of social protection, principles for policy making, provides a legal framework for inter-sectoral coordination and ultimately changes the way that the entities involved carry out their work so that it is rendered more effective.

Based on the rights under the Inter-American human rights system, if translated into the social protection field, individuals are considered right holders and agents of change, thus shifting from being considered “beneficiaries”. Along the same lines, as States become the bearers of responsibilities who are made accountable for their actions or lack thereof, “a focus on rights and obligations helps to identify who is entitled to make claims and who has a duty to take action”. And if there is a clear normative framework that establishes responsibilities and roles in the implementation and delivery of social protection programmes, it allows for better coordination and less fragmentation. In addition, the human rights normative framework introduces human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability into the social protection policy arena.


Alexandra N. Barrantes is an international development professional with more than 16 years experience in social protection, poverty reduction, inequality, social rights and democratic governance. She is currently Section Chief for Equity Promotion at the Department of Social Inclusion with the Organization of American States (OAS) where she is responsible for the social development portfolio, including the Inter-American Social Protection Network (IASPN); and for the Technical Secretariat to the Working Group to Examine the National Periodic Reports Envisioned in the Protocol of San Salvador (WGPSS). Over the past few years, she has coordinated technical assistance activities for social development government agencies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean; undertaken the development of a regional knowledge and learning platform on social protection; and coordinated the development and implementation of the IASPN Social Protection Diploma Course.

The opinions expressed herein do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS) or its Member States, and are the sole responsibility of the author.


Show 14 footnotes

  1.  American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on HHRR in the Area of ESCRs “Protocol of San Salvador”, and the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, among others.
  2. Under the premise that social protection encompasses both contributory schemes, namely social insurance, as well as non-contributory schemes, such as social assistance.
  3. Article 12 of the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons.
  4. Progress Indicators for Measuring Rights under the Protocol of San Salvador, 2015. See:
  5. Progress Indicators for Measuring Rights Under the Protocol of San Salvador, 2015. See:
  6. “Social Protection Floor for a Fair and Inclusive Globalization. Report of the Social Protection Floor Advisory Group.” Geneva, International Labour Office, 2011. Web.
  7. See:
  8. Communiqué of the Second Meeting of Ministers and Hight Authorities of Social Development (2010).
  9. Article 14, Social Charter of the Americas (2012).
  10. Plan of Action of the Social Charter of the Americas (2015).
  11. The Inter-American Social Protection Network (IASPN) within the OAS has been promoting a cross-sectoral vision, which is reflected in the inter-sectoral and multidimensional approach of its Social Development and Employment agenda, and specific activities with Member States (two seminars on inter-sectoral coordination in social protection with ministries of Social Development, Labor and Social Security agencies; a number of joint statements with various agencies of the United Nations on social protection and specialized approaches; among others).
  12.  De Schutter, Olivier, and Magdalena Sepúlveda, “Underwriting the Poor, A Global Fund for Social Protection.” Briefing Note 07, October. 2012.
  13.  Sepúlveda, Magdalena, and Nyst, Carl, “The Human Rights Approach to Social Protection”, 2012.
  14. “Integrated Social Protection Systems, Enhancing Equity for Children.” UNICEF Social Protection Strategic Framework, May. 2012.

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