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Risk and the quest for opportunity feature heavily in economic life in the 21st century. Sustained growth in many developing countries has pulled billions out of poverty and into the middle class; but this economic upturn has yet to reach billions more, who face unemployment, disability, or illness, and struggle to protect themselves and their families against shocks. The poor are particularly vulnerable, being typically more exposed to risk and less able to access opportunities.

In a world filled with risk and potential, social protection and labor systems are being built, refined or reformed in almost every country to help people and families find jobs, improve their productivity, cope with shocks, and invest in the health, education, and well-being of their children.

Social protection and labor systems, programs and policies buffer individuals from shocks and equip them to improve their livelihoods and create opportunities to build a better life for themselves and their families.  Consider this: A baby in a poor family does not starve during the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, because Ethiopia’s national public works program provides his parents with a minimum income. An old man in Ukraine is able to deal with his unexpected disability by going to the “one-stop shop” in his local welfare office, where the staff can quickly direct him to the right program he needs. And a young unemployed woman in the Dominican Republic is able to find a job that pays her a good wage—because she could access a job-training program focused on her needs.

While social protection and labor policies and programs are designed for individuals and families, they can also be broadly transformative—by providing a foundation for inclusive growth and social stability. These policies and programs help create opportunities essential to save lives, reduce poverty, and promote inclusive growth.

Social protection and labor programs directly improve resilience by helping people insure against drops in well-being from different types of shocks and equity by reducing poverty and destitution and promoting equality of opportunity. But these policies also promote opportunity by building human capital, assets, and access to jobs and by freeing families to make productive investments because of their greater sense of security. At a macroeconomic level, well-functioning social protection programs are central to growth-promoting reforms. Indeed, according to the Growth Commission: “…if governments cannot provide much social protection, they may have to tread more carefully with their [growth-promoting] economic reforms.”

The World Bank supports social protection and labor in client countries as a central part of its mission to reduce poverty through sustainable, inclusive growth.  The World Bank’s new social protection and labor strategy (2012-22) lays out ways to deepen World Bank involvement, capacity, knowledge, and impact in social protection and labor.

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