Universal child benefits – why not?

What a three days they were!

Our hope for the conference on Universal Child Grants (UCGs) was to bring together perspectives on social protection and universality. To move towards achieving universal coverage for children frank conversations about the evidence and options are needed. I find myself thinking about the conference in two different ways: things that I personally see differently and things we agreed on (or didn’t!).

Some things that struck me:

Maybe raising a child doesn’t take a village, it takes a country

We went into the conference with a strong focus on child poverty. This approach made sense, given the pernicious impact of poverty on children. But as well as addressing poverty, universal child grants can be a foundation of a nation’s shared commitment to fulfilling the rights of all children. The example from Olli Kangas from Finland of using a UCG (as one among several polices) to bring the country together after the civil war showed this powerfully. The session on dignity and shame showed how targeted approaches can stigmatise recipients and pull people apart. These examples place UCGs on the same spectrum as universal education or healthcare, and recognize societies need to invest collectively in their children.

Addressing immediate, concrete practicalities is vital

The presence of delegations and policy makers from a range of countries benefitted the conference enormously. Presentations and discussions took broader thinking around child grants and transformed them in to very concrete questions that need answering: what would the returns be on expanding a child grant? Who would be winners and losers in replacing food and fuel subsidies with UCGs? How would reform a complex web of programmes be handled? Being able to practically, coherently and collaboratively answer these questions is key. Which brings me to…

The political economy of international organisations is part of the political economy of universal child grants

The conference had an excellent session on political economy of universality, and emerging from this session and others was the sometimes disparate advice of international organisations. This may not come as a surprise to many, but my experience globally with Social Protection Inter-agency Cooperation Board and bilaterally and through country experiences, is that while we don’t always agree, we work together. Indeed a plurality of views can lead to better results. The conference painted a picture of revolving doors in some countries: as a UN agency leaves, an International Financial Institution comes in. This shouldn’t be overplayed as there are a growing number of countries where we are collaborating, and where cross-institutional outreach is growing. But there’s no doubt it’s an issue. Moving towards universal child benefits takes not only a range of expertise in children, social protection, financing etc.,  but also consistent long-term engagement and trust of governments. I don’t think there is really a successful and sustainable not-working-together option.

© ILO/2019The author, David Stewart (in the middle) chairing the high level panel discussion during the UCG conference.

Moving from me to we – a few areas struck me as important points of agreement:

UCGs – starting with early childhood – are an early stop on the path to universal social protection

Through the USP 2030 agenda, there is already a shared vision among partners that universal social protection is the goal. Through the conference, I felt there was an emerging consensus that starting with universal grants for younger children (zero to five) should be a priority. As the World Bank put it: UCGs should be an early stop on the journey to universal social protection. Importantly, how quickly we get there in different contexts remains open to different perspectives. The question I raised at the conference is can we take a ‘why not’ approach? Avoiding the revolving doors and sitting at the same table with governments to ask:  How can we achieve this? Are there compelling reasons we can’t get there now, and if so what would be the milestones to getting there? Makes sense?

Don’t rob Peter to pay Paul

From the excellent introductions by Sir Richard Jolly and Jayati Ghosh, a concern that was broadly shared was: achieving universal child grants at the expense of quality services in areas such as health and education will not benefit children. I have a sense, though it’s hard to pin down, that this concern is greater outside of social protection circles. Do we underplay the practical reality of these risks?


Rights not gifts (or benefits not grants)

There’s nothing like a common point of disagreement to bring sometimes disparate parties together, and we’re honoured to have played the role! There was a strong view across the breadth of debate that ‘grants’ denote a gift, rather than a right or entitlement – which are better described as benefits. Growing up in the UK, this can be a negatively loaded term, but this is just one damaged piece of cultural heritage. This makes sense to me.

Finally, there were a couple of issues which were left unresolved, which are important to keep our focus on:

The debate on targeting isn’t over

There is no doubting the importance of the debate over targeting effectiveness. I felt it was a positive that it didn’t dominate the conference, and there was room to talk about other crucial design considerations – issues such as the role UCGs may play for children with disabilities, gender equality and human rights considerations around universality. But still, this strikes me as an area that is difficult to discuss together in full analytical detail. Is it simply that we don’t accept budget constraints implying targeting or small benefit amounts? Conversely, do we take budgets as fixed too easily? Are there administrative systems that make targeting better?  And how does this vary by context? When I put my policy-maker hat on (it’s purple) – it seems there is more to understand and discuss here.



I think this brief on affordability sums up the basic conundrum well – financing isn’t a yes or no question, but one of national political priority. In many contexts, international development partners play a vital role. Something that emerged (is it an irony or just obvious?) is that organisations that traditionally have less influence on overall budgets may worry about them less: setting universal goals without the details of sustainable financing. On the other hand, the logic of a targeted approach is often predicated on a fixed resource envelope. Here organisations that might have major influence over the budget, may accept it too easily as fixed. For UNICEF there are important questions here, and our work and capacity on public finance for children is rapidly expanding to respond. For the World Bank and the IMF, a couple of questions arose for me during the conference:

  • For the World Bank: is there more room to support and advise on making the budget work for universal child benefits? It would be interesting to understand if so, how? And if not, why not?
  • For the IMF: financing is an operative part of their work. A crucial question as they develop their approach to social protection is: what role does social protection play in the IMF’s guiding concept of ‘macro-criticality’ (e.g if an issue can effect domestic stability, including growth and/or inflation, or external or global stability)? If universal child benefits address social cohesion and long term human capital formation, how should that be integrated into overall advice, including on the budget?


I’m sure I speak for all of us who worked on the conference at ILO, UNICEF and ODI in our thanks to everyone for the work and research that went into this conference, the willingness to join us and the openness to discuss these issues.  Not  to mention the incredible behind-the-scenes efforts that made everything work so well, which together made I think for an amazing event. For us this is just the end of the beginning, the conference provides a crucial foundation in our work with ODI in reviewing all the evidence around universal child benefits that, with smooth sailing, will come out in the autumn.


David Stewart (@dmistewart1) is Chief of Child Poverty and Social Protection, UNICEF HQ.

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