Social protection – have aid agencies got it wrong?

June 24, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

‘Has social protection in sub-Saharan Africa lost its way?’ asks a brilliant new paper from a consortium of thinktanks, including IDS and

but is anyone listening?

but is anyone listening?

ODI. Their overall finding is that donors’ preference for evidence and pilots, and lack of engagement with national political realities, have undermined their impact. Hard to summarize – it’s a treasure trove – but here are some highlights:

Where are we at? ‘The 2002/03 humanitarian crisis in southern Africa was the trigger for a big push by the international community on the then emerging social protection policy agenda, which has since gone through two broad phases. In the first phase (roughly 2002-05), the strategic objective of certain donors to prevent food aid from swamping the region was successfully achieved, social protection was established on the policy agenda in many countries, some governments initiated national social pension schemes or ‘productive safety net’ programmes, and donors invested heavily in building the evidence base for social transfers, and in enhancing the capacity of government partners to deliver social protection programmes.

The second phase (2006-10) has been more erratic. Many countries now have social protection strategies; ‘emergency cash transfers’ have displaced or complemented food aid in food crises; some large-scale programmes have been introduced while others have been consolidated. But in other countries pilot social transfer projects have not scaled up and face uncertain futures, while several African governments remain resistant to institutionalising national-level social transfers, often revealing a strong preference for input subsidies and public works instead.

As for the development community, we cannot agree among ourselves on how to move the social protection agenda forward – some take a ‘rights-based’ perspective while others want to implement a needs-based ‘social floor’; some favour unconditional cash transfers while others want to introduce conditions; some argue for social pensions while others target ‘orphans and vulnerable children’ (OVC) or the poorest 10%; and in some countries different approaches are being ’piloted’ in different districts simultaneously, not informed by any national vision.’

6 current approaches, and why they have largely failed:

1) Financing pilots and demonstration projects: governments suspect (reasonably enough) these are Millennium Village-style ‘Potemkin projects’, designed (and funded) to succeed, that can’t be scaled up. ‘We know of no cases where such a pilot or demonstration project has become a government-owned social protection programme with national coverage.’

2) Building the evidence base: governments have not been persuaded by the evidence – not least because policy choices are influenced by lots of other, messier, things like politics, election cycles etc (would never happen here, eh?).

3) Building the capacity of implementing ministries: no good when the relevant ministries are so far down the government pecking order, with negligible influence over the ‘Ministries of Money.’

4) Mobilising civil society: few success stories – CSOs are usually seen by governments as junior partners or service providers

5) Engaging directly with Ministries of Finance: they only listen to macroeconomists, and the macroeconomists won’t buy into SP until you can show it boosts growth (rather than just reduces poverty and suffering).

6) Lobbying parliamentarians: has not translated into government action.

So what’s the problem? The paper turns the spotlight on ‘outsiders like us’ and asks ‘What’s wrong with the way outsiders are engaging in social protection in Africa?’ It offers five options for improving our performance:

(1) Learn from government-driven programmes and work with governments to monitor, evaluate, improve and extend them; find out where the energy is, and build on this. When governments in Lesotho and Swaziland introduced national social pensions, they had to do so against the advice of donors and with no external financial or technical support.

(2) Work through appropriate institutional mechanisms, at regional and national levels (but remember that the final decisions are almost always national).

(3) Learn lessons for national implementation, rather than from pilot projects. What is needed now is not more evidence of impact from small experiments: it is practical experience that will inform implementation at national scale.

(4) Be driven less by instruments and locate social transfers within a broader national social policy agenda, by paying more attention to social protection objectives – including reducing vulnerability

(5) Find new levers for supporting African governments, based on a more sophisticated understanding of the political economy in each national context. Identify the ‘drivers’ of social protection policy processes: key stakeholders, government priorities and constraints – national food security, electoral cycles etc –  informal as well as formal institutions, complex patterns of allegiance and competition involving domestic and external actors.

By understanding and working with the grain of national politics, social protection advocates will achieve far more than if they insist on parachuting in technocratic approaches, however well designed.

June 24, 2010
Duncan Green