Social protection

Social protection


Social Protection Topic Guide

About this Topic Guide

This Topic Guide can be read online using the links to its sections above, or downloaded as a PDF (37 pages; 1.3 MB). It was written by Evie Browne, and its production was supported by the UK Government.

GSDRC appreciates the contributions of: Catherine Arnold, DFID; Armando Barrientos, Brooks World Poverty Institute; Tim Conway, DFID; Stephen Devereux, IDS; Matthew Greenslade, DFID; Stephen Kidd, Development Pathways; Heather Kindness, DFID; Rachel Slater, ODI; and Fabio Veras Soares, International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth. We are also grateful to GSDRC researchers Zoë Scott, Huma Haider and Oliver Walton for their work on previous versions of this guide (2009-12).

Suggested citation

Browne, E. (2015). Social protection: Topic guide. Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.


Social protection is commonly understood as “all public and private initiatives that provide income or consumption transfers to the poor, protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks and enhance the social status and rights of the marginalised; with the overall objective of reducing the economic and social vulnerability of poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups” (Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler, 2004: i).

This guide provides an overview of social protection concepts, approaches, issues, debates and the evidence. It primarily focuses on longer-term developmental social protection, rather than humanitarian responses, and on low-income countries, drawing on other contexts where appropriate. The aim is to provide an overview of issues, a selection of key references and signposting to further resources, rather than an exhaustive guide.

Two main rationales for supporting social protection recur across the literature. One is that social protection is a human right. A second rationale is that social protection is instrumental to the achievement of a broader range of development goals, including poverty reduction, education, health, social inclusion, empowerment and state-building, among others.

Evidence on social protection is extremely robust in some areas, and weak in others. Cash transfers are very well studied and have produced rigorous, comparative evidence on what works. Social insurance has a moderately robust evidence base. Labour market interventions are less studied, but have moderately robust evidence. Sectorally, there is strong evidence on poverty reduction, and improved children’s health and education access. The weakest evidence is in showing impacts on social outcomes, such as women’s empowerment and social inclusion; and in whether social protection increases economic growth. The evidence is thus clustered around measurable service-access and human development impacts, with less evidence on longer-term, social development goals. Although social protection programmes often have a long-term outlook, the evidence base does not have many longitudinal studies. Overall, the evidence suggests that social protection has had positive effects on child and maternal health; primary and secondary education enrolment and attendance; and poverty reduction.

A major recent shift in thinking is away from fragmented social protection programmes towards comprehensive social protection systems. This has largely been driven by donors, who are now investing in building integrated social protection systems. It also ties to an increasing focus on fiscal space and domestic financing of social protection, to ensure secure and sustainable social protection systems over the long-term.

Areas of debate remain. These include conditionality, targeting and graduation. There is positive evidence for both unconditional and conditional transfers, and for different targeting methods, without clearly generalisable lessons on what works best. The literature is in agreement that social protection has important developmental effects, but that it alone is insufficient to lift households out of poverty.

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