The state of social safety nets 2015

World Bank


As of 2015, every country in the world has at least one social safety net programmes in place, and the average developing country has about 20 ongoing programmes. This report draws on data that was previously unavailable to examine trends in coverage, spending, and programme performance of the main safety net programmes that exist globally.  and the ways that countries use them to alleviate poverty and build shared prosperity. It calls for better-coordinated systems to increase efficiency and guide multiple social protection interventions in order to protect the poor and vulnerable.

The analysis draws heavily on the survey and administrative data in the World Bank’s Atlas of Social Protection: Indicators of Resilience and Equity (ASPIRE), a comprehensive international database,  and includes updated administrative information on spending and number of beneficiaries for 136 countries. This edition also includes a new section featuring a special theme, urban safety nets.

1.9 billion people are enrolled in social safety net programs of which 44% receive in-kind transfers, 37% receive cash-based transfers, and 19% receive fee waivers. Trends include:

  • Government spending: low-income and middle income countries devote approximately the same level of resources to social safety nets (1.5 and 1.6 % of GDP, respectively), while richer countries spend 1.9 percent. Cash transfers constitute the highest share of spending in all regions except Sub-Saharan Africa, where food and in-kind transfers dominate (27% of total safety net spending, on average).
  • Types: while traditional safety nets programs like school feeding and in-kind transfers remain stable, cash transfers are increasingly popular. Forty countries in Africa now have Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCTs), while Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) are available in 64 developing countries. Among cash-based transfers, social pensions account for the highest share of expenditures, followed by poverty-targeted transfers.
  • Coverage: most of the poor remain outside the social safety net system, especially in lower-income countries. This coverage gap is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where only 1/10 and 1/5 of the poorest 20% have access to social safety nets, respectively. Urban areas also have serious gaps at all income levels.
  • Evidence: an additional 23 impact evaluations (building on 145 reviewed until then) have been published since 2014 highlighting positive and significant impacts on education, access to health, household economic empowerment and,  in the case of cash transfers, positive spillover effects on the local economy.
  • Efficiency and cost-effectiveness: the effectiveness of programmes on the reduction of the poverty gap depends on a number of variables including coverage and the adequacy of benefits. Countries typically strike a balance between expanding coverage and providing more adequate transfers to a smaller group. Higher levels of spending are typically associated with higher impacts on poverty. When countries are spending less than the global average on their safety nets, they find that impacts on poverty reduction are lower.
  • Emerging issues and practices in urban settings: learning from current iterative processes in first generation programmes will help inform how to address the unique challenges of these settings.

A coherent system should start with a plan and a policy framework to guide multiple social protection interventions. The efficient implementation of social protection systems requires the institutional capacity and tools to facilitate the selection of beneficiaries, service delivery, and monitoring of both processes and outcomes.


World Bank. (2015). The state of social safety nets 2015. Washington, D.C: World Bank.