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The meaning of "social safety nets"


  • Paitoonpong, Srawooth
  • Abe, Shigeyuki
  • Puopongsakorn, Nipon


In Southeast Asia, the issue of "social safety nets" (SSNs) has emerged more prominently since the financial crisis. Despite the increased interest in social safety nets, there is still considerable confusion among scholars and national and international organizations regarding the use and meaning of the term. This article considers the different definitions of the term--particularly as it was used during the Asian Financial Crisis--and to attempt to clarify its meaning and proper use. The safety net analogy is drawn from high-wire walkers who are protected by a safety net if they fall. The safety net prevents any walker who falls--unexpectedly or not--from hitting the floor and incurring catastrophic injuries. Following this line of reasoning, it is not surprising to learn that some organizations and scholars use the term SSN such that it encompasses private and public mechanisms that assist individuals in maintaining a minimum level of consumption. The term "social safety net" (SSN) began to be used by Bretton Woods' institutions in connection with structural adjustment programs related to their lending programs. Developing countries introduced SSNs to mitigate the social impact of structural adjustment measures on specific low-income groups. They were initially formulated to serve three objectives: poverty alleviation, to make adjustment programs more politically acceptable, and institutional reform. During the Asian Financial Crisis, there was a great deal of confusion regarding the content and consequent identification of SSN programs. Public SSN programs can be classified into formal and informal safety nets. Formal and informal safety nets are, generally, distinguished by law enforcement: formal safety nets are those which legally guarantee individuals access to economic or social support whereas informal safety nets provide likelihood of support to individuals to assure them of attaining or remaining above the designated minimum standard of living but with no legal guarantee. Informal SSNs can be divided into private and public ones. Examples of private informal SSNs include transfers from family members, friends, neighbors and community members and institutions, including NGOs, while those of public informal SSNs refer to the support which individuals can hope for from the government, through programs which generate assets or employment, transfer income, or provide basic social services, as a means of helping affected individuals from falling below the designated minimum standard of living. The difference between formal and informal public SSNs is whether there exists a formal legal support of the assistance. The article has provided more discussion on the definitions of SSN used by the World Bank, ESCAP, ILO and TDRI. In conclusion, the authors note that the tremendous variation in the use of the term invites confusion and makes it virtually useless as a technical concept. The very nature of the metaphor invokes a vision of a large net that encompass a number of different types of programs. In many cases it is not even possible to list specific programs that are included, as the particular forms of these programs could, of course, vary with place, time and circumstances. Complicating things further, the term is sometimes used in a very narrow sense. Given the low probability that usage of the term will ever be standardized, economists and national/international organizations might be well served by avoiding the term completely and instead using its component parts.

Suggested Citation

  • Paitoonpong, Srawooth & Abe, Shigeyuki & Puopongsakorn, Nipon, 2008. "The meaning of "social safety nets"," Journal of Asian Economics, Elsevier, vol. 19(5-6), pages 467-473.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:asieco:v:19:y:2008:i:5-6:p:467-473

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Reddy, S., 1998. "Social Funds in Developing Countries : Recent Experiences and Lessons," Papers 98-002, California Los Angeles - Applied Econometrics.
    2. Vivian, J., 1994. "Social Safety Nets and Adjustment in Developing Countries," Papers 1, United Nations - Research Institute of Social Development.
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    Cited by:

    1. Jonathan Sibley & Alex Ivaschenko & Kerry Pagau & Tom Tanhchareun, 2014. "The New Ireland Social Pension," World Bank Other Operational Studies 22525, The World Bank.


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