Social protection

Social protection


Design and implementation

Designing and implementing social protection programmes in developing countries entails real challenges on both the demand and supply side. The presence of informal social protection mechanisms combined with a lack of prior government service provision means that there is often little demand for (or understanding of) social protection. On the supply side, governments often lack the will to support social protection programmes which they can ill-afford. In this context, reaching the most vulnerable presents problems, particularly where particular groups are marginalised and/or excluded. The resources below present some of the key considerations in social protection programming.

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Practical guidance

Samson, M., van Niekirk, I. and Mac Quene, K., 2006, 'Designing and Implementing Social Transfer Programmes', Economic Policy Research Institute (EPRI), Cape Town
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Grosh, M., et al., 2008, ‘For Protection and Promotion: The Design and Implementation of Effective Safety Nets’, World Bank, Washington D.C.
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Lessons learned

Lessons from past social protection interventions can be used to inform programme design and implementation. For instance, it is suggested that despite their popularity cash transfers are not always the most viable option, for example when markets are not functioning well, and/or goods are subject to price fluctuations. The potential for pensions are also highlighted, as is the use of technological innovation to distribute transfers (such as mobile phones). It is generally accepted that a successful social protection programme requires buy-in from beneficiaries, as well as political support (and active engagement/ownership) from the national government. The prominent role of donors in both financing and implementing social protection programmes raises questions about the long-term sustainability of an intervention designed to be a long-term process.

Jackson, C. et al., 2011, 'Lessons from Social Protection Programme Implementation in Kenya, Zambia and Mongolia', Research Report 69, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
In what ways can social protection programming with its investments in human capital (through education, health and nutrition) stop the intergenerational transfer of poverty? This study examines social protection programmes in Kenya, Zambia and Mongolia to understand the factors (design and implementation) that account for success. It argues that agencies need to ensure that ground-level good practice is effectively brought into policy and programming.
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Ellis, F., 2007, ‘Regional Lesson Learning from the Case Studies’, REBA Case Study Brief, Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme, Johannesburg
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Barrientos, A., 2007, ‘Introducing Basic Social Protection in Low-Income Countries: Lessons from Existing Programmes’, BWPI Briefing Paper, Brooks World Poverty Institute, Manchester.
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For more examples of lesson-learning within cash transfer programmes please see Types of social protection.

Financing and affordability

Social protection mechanisms are financed by international donors, national governments, individuals, communities, the private sector and NGOs. Current research questions the previously-held belief that developing countries cannot afford social security programmes and that money spent on social transfers to the poor could be better spent promoting growth. However the affordability of projects in the long term is a major concern for national governments, as well as donors concerned with the sustainability aspect of aid interventions. These concerns are especially pertinent in resource-constrained environments with low potential for taxation, and in resource-rich countries which possess the administrative capacity to finance social protection. In general the literature indicates that donor funding to social protection projects should be reliable, predictable and long-term in order to encourage national government support and ultimately build the recipient country capacity to deliver such programmes. Further, social protection interventions which are adequately targeted to prevent leakage help provide value-for-money.

Barrientos, A., 2007, ‘Financing Social Protection’, BWPI Working Paper 5, Brooks World Poverty Institute (BWPI), Manchester
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Handley, J., 2009, ‘Fiscal Space for Strengthened Social Protection: West and Central Africa’, Regional Thematic Report 2, UNICEF, Dakar
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Holmes, R. and Jackson, A., 2008, 'Cash Transfers in Sierra Leone: Are They Appropriate, Affordable or Feasible?', Overseas Development Institute, London
Can cash transfers assist in Sierra Leone's post-conflict transition and contribute to reducing poverty levels? This project briefing finds that the political acceptability of cash transfers remains a challenge. To achieve political acceptability, particularly from donors, cash transfer programmes must be linked, programmatically and institutionally, to wider economic growth processes. Implementation challenges, including institutional capacity and physical infrastructure, are serious but not insurmountable.
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Managing fiduciary risk

As an investment in the future, donors have an important role to play in managing fiduciary risks and thereby strengthening the affordability of social protection for the governments of developing countries. However, the possibility of eliminating such risks is thought to be low.

Department for International Development (DFID), 2006, ‘Managing the Fiduciary Risk Associated with Social Cash Transfer Programmes: DFID How To Note’, DFID, London
What fiduciary risks do social cash transfer programmes, like pensions or household allowances, carry? How can international donors limit the diversion of these funds away from their intended beneficiaries? This paper outlines methods for appraising, minimising and monitoring the fiduciary risk of a cash transfer initiative. It argues that, while such losses are almost impossible to eliminate, they can be reduced by assessing and recording the risks, designing programmes to mitigate these risk and regular monitoring and evaluations to ensure the objectives of the programme are being met.
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O'Cleirigh, E., 2009, ‘Affordability of Social Protection Measures in Poor Developing Countries’, in Promoting Pro-Poor Growth: Social Protection, OECD, Paris, pp. 111-127
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Targeting refers to whether social protection mechanisms reach the poorest, or most vulnerable, households without experiencing significant leakage into the hands of less vulnerable or ineligible individuals (‘errors of inclusion’) or failing to provide coverage to needy sections of the population (‘errors of exclusion’). Transfers can be targeted on the basis of geography, gender, age, disability, household size or other likely indicators of poverty or vulnerability.

Targeting has been shown to work in many instances. There are however three caveats: first, there are instances where targeting is not effective, such as regional targeting, which risks both leakage and under-coverage of the ultra-poor; second, there is a considerable trade-off within the programme design, as leakage to the ineligible is costly, but so is the administrative burden of means-testing for programme eligibility; third, it is argued that targeted interventions are highly political, particularly in the case of community-based targeting.

Slater, R. and Farrington, J., 2009, ‘Targeting of Social Transfers: A Review for DFID’, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London
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Yoong, J., Rabinovich, L., and Diepeveen, S., 2012, ‘The Impact of Economic Resource Transfers to Women Versus Men: A Systematic Review’, Technical report, EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London
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Slater, R., and Farrington, J., 2009, ‘Making Social Transfers Appropriate, Achievable and Acceptable: A Practical Tool for Good Targeting’, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London
How can social transfers best be targeted to address financial poverty? How can decision-makers navigate trade-offs between different targeting choices? This note presents a 'targeting decision tree'. It outlines the minimum data and information requirements for good targeting and the questions requiring answers. Decisions should be based on whether targeting is appropriate, achievable and acceptable. Successful targeting is most likely if programmes have one realistic objective, and if they distinguish clearly between who should be eligible for support and how to identify the eligible.
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Caeyers B. and Dercon S., 2008, 'Political Connections and Social Networks in Targeted Transfer Programmes: Evidence from Rural Ethiopia', Working Paper 313, Centre for the Study of African Economies, University of Oxford
Is the targeting carried out by community-based transfer programmes influenced by beneficiaries' political and social connections? This paper investigates how targeted transfers are allocated in Ethiopia under a highly bureaucratised and decentralised administrative system. It finds strong evidence of favouritism and the influence of political connections; families in need without connections to local political elites are significantly less likely to receive food aid transfers. This illustrates the importance of political economy in the delivery of even basic aid.
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To read more on the politics of targeting, see the section on The politics of social protection.


In areas with poor financial infrastructure, social assistance, such as cash or food transfers, has conventionally been delivered using ‘pull’ mechanisms. Under this approach, recipients are required to report to a specified location at a particular date and time to collect their transfers. In contrast, ‘push’ mechanisms allow for transfers to be made to recipients using technology, for example, the use of mobile phones or bank accounts to transfer money. Strong, context-specific analysis is crucial to understand how technology can best be used and the effects of using new technologies on the most vulnerable beneficiaries.

The development of new technologies has allowed for greater efficiency, cost-effectiveness and flexibility in accessing funds.  It has also resulted in other benefits, such as empowering recipients through gaining capacity in the use of information and communications technology.

Devereux, S., 2010, 'Using Technology to Deliver Social Protection: Exploring Opportunities and Risks', Development in Practice, vol. 20, no. 3, pp.367-379
What are the opportunities and risks of using information and communications technology (ICT) to deliver social protection? This article considers experiences from southern Africa, focusing on pilot projects in Malawi. It finds that using ICT to deliver social protection increases project efficiency and cost-effectiveness (particularly at large scale), increases flexibility and broader access to banking facilities for beneficiaries, and can especially empower women. It can also bring wider benefits to the national economy. With effective strategies in place to address risks such as information regulations and data security, the opportunities of ICT use can significantly outweigh the risks.
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Datta, D., Ejakait, A., with Scriven, K., 2009, ‘Cash Transfers Through Mobile Phones: An Innovative Emergency Response in Kenya’, ALNAP Innovations Case Study 1, ALNAP, London
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Harvey, P. et al., 2010, ‘Delivering Money: Cash transfer mechanisms in emergencies’, The Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) and Save the Children, London
This report offers guidance on assessing the different options for cash delivery. It also explores the potential for stronger partnerships with private sector providers and looks at developments in the payments industry. It argues that context-specific analysis is vital, as well as the integration of cash approaches into contingency planning. Clearly defined programme objectives help to guide the choice of payment systems.
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Donor coordination

The influence of the aid effectiveness agenda upon donor approaches to social assistance has meant that there is an emphasis on the need for donors to not only encourage recipient country ownership but also harmonise aid interventions in order to avoid duplication and promote the accountability of donors, national governments and service providers.

Waterhouse, R., 2007, ‘Coordination and Coverage of Social Protection Initiatives in Mozambique’, REBA Briefing Paper, International Poverty Centre, New York.
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Mainstreaming social protection

This section discusses the various ways in which social protection can be mainstreamed with other policy concerns.

A response to social exclusion

In targeting particularly vulnerable groups, social protection is a way of responding to the existence of social exclusion. The process of identifying those most in need of social protection interventions entails undertaking poverty and vulnerability analyses which help illuminate social exclusion from a life-cycle perspective. ‘Life-cycle analysis’ within the design of social protection programmes identifies sources of social exclusion at different stages in the life-cycle through the use of disaggregated data, enabling programmers to allocate resources and focus their attentions on addressing social, as well as economic, risks. Although there are problems in involving local communities in social protection programmes due to the risk of existing levels of exclusion being exacerbated through community-targeting approaches, there exist a number of guidelines for involving local organisations in order to promote social inclusion, specifically in employment programmes.

Cain, E., 2009, ‘Social Protection and Vulnerability, Risk and Exclusion across the Life Cycle’, in Promoting Pro-Poor Growth: Social Protection, OECD DAC, Paris, pp. 129-144
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Henriques, J.M., 2008, ‘Social Protection, Employment and Local Development: Guidelines to Help Partners to Consult Local Organisations in the Social Economy in the Area of Social Exclusion’, Bridges for Inclusion, International Labour Office (ILO), Geneva.
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For detailed information on social exclusion, please see the GSDRC’s Social Exclusion topic guide.


Gender roles and social norms play key roles in determining an individual’s vulnerability, exposure to shocks and access to social protection mechanisms. Men and women often face different risks and vulnerabilities and can also be affected by the same risks differently. There is a need to conduct gender-focused baseline studies in order to determine where particular pockets of vulnerability lie.

It is often women who face the greatest vulnerabilities due to lack of capital, high wage differentials and gendered work norms, bearing the responsibility for childcare, and exclusion from basic services. Therefore it is often women who require the benefits of social protection interventions. This implies that a level of targeting is required in order to reach marginalised women who are likely not to benefit from existing programmes (e.g. labour market interventions for formal sector workers). In relation to this, the recognition that social transfers directed at women may not always stay in the possession of women at household level suggests that conditionality is useful in ensuring that transfers do directly benefit women.

Although gender-sensitive policy and programme design has the potential to increase the effectiveness of social protection, gender has not been integrated well into social protection approaches. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are considered secondary goals, resulting in a substantial disconnect between these goals on the one hand and social protection objectives on the other. Explicit attention to empowerment in the design of social protection programmes is necessary in order to broaden the view of gendered vulnerabilities beyond a narrow focus on support for women's domestic roles and participation in traditional low growth sectors.

Holmes, R. and Jones, N., 2010, 'Rethinking Social Protection Using a Gender Lens', ODI Working Paper, no. 320, Overseas Development Institute (ODI),London
To what extent is social protection programming reinforcing women's traditional roles and responsibilities, or helping to transform gender relations in economic and social spheres? How can policy and programme design and evaluations better address gender-specific risks and vulnerability? This paper synthesises multi-country research, finding that the integration of gender into social protection approaches has so far been uneven at best. However,all the programmes studied had both intended and unintended effects on women and gender relations. Attention to dynamics within the household can help to maximise positive programme impacts and reduce potentially negative ones. Relatively simple design changes and investment in more strategic implementation practices are needed.
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Thakur, S. G., Arnold, C., and Johnson, T., 2009, ‘Gender and Social Protection’, in Promoting Pro-Poor Growth: Social Protection, OECD, Paris, pp. 167-182
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Luttrell, C. and Moser, C., 2004, ‘Gender and Social Protection’, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London
How is gender relevant to social protection programmes? This paper  discusses the role of gender issues in social protection policies, programmes and strategies. Vulnerabilities to risk vary significantly by gender, and shocks affect men and women differently. These differences need to be taken into account when developing social protection policies and programmes.
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Ezemenari, K., Chaudhury, N. and Owens, J., 2002, ‘Gender and Risk in the Design of Social Protection Interventions’, Social Protection Discussion Paper Series 0231, World Bank, Washington
What are the gender dimensions of risk and its effects on individuals, households and vulnerable groups? How can gender considerations be incorporated in the design of social protection programmes? This paper documents the gender disaggregated impact of shocks, based on available empirical evidence, and reviews the gender issues specific to safety nets, pensions and unemployment programmes. It concludes that undue focus on the household or family when designing social protection programmes compromises their efficiency, equity and effectiveness.
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Holmes, R and Jones, N., 2010, ‘How to Design and Implement Gender-sensitive Social Protection Programmes: A Toolkit’ Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London
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Gender & Development special issue on Social Protection, Volume 19, Issue 2, 2011
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Ensuring that social protection has a strong child focus is an objective shared by leading organisations, particularly where addressing vulnerability and risk are seen as the cornerstones of social protection. However existing social protection frameworks do not always take into account the particular vulnerabilities of children (such as early marriage, child soldiering and orphanhood). It is therefore argued that the needs of children must be accommodated within social protection interventions by identifying child-specific risks and vulnerabilities and attempting to synergise child protection with wider social protection design and implementation through the use of instruments such as conditional cash transfers (e.g. Brazil’s Bolsa Escola), social health insurance and accessible social services for children.

Sabates-Wheeler, R., Devereux, S. and Hodges, A., 2009, ‘Taking the Long View: What Does a Child Focus Add to Social Protection?', IDS Bulletin, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 109-119
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Joint Statement on Child Sensitive Child Protection, 2009, DFID, HelpAge International, Hope & Homes for Children, Institute of Development Studies, International Labour Organisation, Overseas Development Institute, Save the Children UK, UNICEF, UNDP, World Bank, London/New York/Washington, D.C.
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UNICEF, 2012, 'Integrated Social Protection Systems: Enhancing Equity for Children - UNICEF Social Protection Strategic Framework', UNICEF, New York
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Jones, N., 2009, ‘Promoting Synergies between Child Protection and Social Protection: West and Central Africa’, Regional Thematic Report 5, UNICEF, Dakar
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Jones, N. and Holmes, R., 2010, 'Tackling Child Vulnerabilities through Social Protection: Lessons from West and Central Africa', Background Note,Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London
This report synthesises learning from child-sensitive social protection programmes in Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Congo, and Senegal. A child-sensitive approach to social protection needs to be informed by the specific vulnerabilities and risks that children and their carers face. Challenges to such an approach in West and Central Africa are political instability, lack of fiscal space, hostile socio-cultural attitudes, and lack of an evidence-based political culture. Social protection design and implementation must be gender- and child-sensitive, and linked to broader reforms to create fiscal space.
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Greenberg, A., 2007, ‘Enhanced Protection for Children Affected by AIDS’, UNICEF, New York
How can children affected by AIDS be protected from increased vulnerability, exploitation and neglect? This report finds that it is important to strengthen national and community-level responses for all vulnerable children by enhancing social protection, legal protection and justice, and alternative care. This work must be underpinned by efforts to address the silence and stigma that allow HIV-related discrimination, abuse and exploitation of children to continue.
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Marcus, R. and Pereznieto, P., with Cullen, E. and Jones, N., 2011, ‘Children and Social Protection in the Middle East and North Africa: A Mapping Exercise’, ODI Working Paper 335, London
This study maps child-sensitive social protection initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where children are typically overrepresented among the poor. It also considers the main actors involved in social protection provision, their strategies and programme limitations, and provides recommendations for improved child social protection. Challenges to more effective and child-sensitive social protection in the region include financial barriers, the fragmentation of provision, local-level difficulties in obtaining the correct documentation to obtain benefits, and citizens' lack of knowledge of their entitlements.
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Agriculture and pro-poor growth have an established connection. Whilst the connection between pro-poor growth and social protection as a mechanism to both promote pro-poor growth and protect vulnerable populations from shocks is also well-established, attempts to make direct links between agricultural policy and social protection are not yet systematic. However social protection and agricultural policies are intricately linked: agriculture generates the conditions through which social protection interventions can succeed (e.g. stable food prices, livelihoods), whilst social protection promotes agricultural growth (e.g. protecting farmers from price fluctuations, increasing productivity and providing insurance against weather-related losses). A perspective on the needs of those whose livelihoods depends on agriculture is particularly pertinent when there is a strong preference for market-based interventions, which often exclude rural populations where formal markets are not yet fully developed.

Farrington, J., Holmes, R., and Slater, R., 2007, ‘Linking Agriculture and Social Protection: Conceptual Framework’, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London
How can social protection reduce shocks and stresses in productive environments as well as for households? What are the connections between social protection and agriculture in terms of concepts, approaches and contexts? This paper argues that in relation to agricultural production, a well-managed social protection programme will seek to reduce both actual shocks and stresses, and agriculturists' and labourers' perceptions of likely shocks and stresses. It can thus minimise the loss of productive assets and encourage farmers' engagement in new, potentially more productive, enterprises.
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Sabates-Wheeler, R., Devereux, S. and Guenther, B., 2009, ‘Promoting Synergies between Social Protection and Smallholder Agricultural Policies’, FAC Working Paper No. SP01, Futures Agricultural Consortium (FAC), Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Brighton
How do social protection and agricultural policies interact? What are the synergies or conflicts between them? This study examines the situation in poor communities in Africa and explores how social and agricultural policies can complement each other. Social protection can promote food security and agricultural production directly. However, the mix of policies and instruments needed to achieve both 'livelihood protection' and 'livelihood promotion' must be determined by levels of economic activity, infrastructure and market development.
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Evaluating social protection programmes

Monitoring and evaluating impact are crucial parts of development programming. Whilst monitoring involves the collection of data in accordance with specific indicators relating to a programme’s objectives, evaluation techniques use this information in order to make informed judgements about how successful a programme is during or at the programme’s completion. Due to the diverse nature of social protection instruments, available guidance focuses on individual instruments rather than addressing social protection as a whole. Impact evaluations are ideal but have large data collection and analysis requirements.

International Labour Organisation (ILO), 2007,‘Health Microinsurance Schemes: Monitoring and Evaluation Guide, Volume 1: Methodology’, Strategies and Tools against Exclusion and Poverty Programme (STEP), International Labour Organisation (ILO), Geneva
What are the required capacities and key indicators of a viable health microinsurance scheme (HMIS)? This guide provides a tool to help in overcoming the lack of evaluation data on health microinsurance schemes. In countries with low levels of health insurance coverage, many health microinsurance schemes designed to reach the poor are emerging. There is growing recognition that health microinsurance schemes constitute a complementary and valuable strategy in extending social security.
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Robalino, D., et al., 2009,‘Ex-Ante Methods to Assess the Impact of Social Insurance Policies on Labor Supply with an Application to Brazil’, Social Protection Discussion Paper No. 0929, World Bank, Washington, D.C.
This study has developed a behavioural model to assess how changes in the rules of pensions and unemployment benefit systems could affect savings rates, the share of time that individuals spend outside of the formal sector, retirement decisions, and system costs. Key parameters are: (1) preferences regarding consumption and leisure; (2) preferences regarding formal versus informal work; (3) attitudes towards risks; (4) the rate of time preference; and (5) the distribution of an outside shock that affects movements in and out of the social insurance system, given individual decisions. Simulations suggest, among other findings, the importance of joint policy analysis of unemployment benefits and pension systems.
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Paes-Sousa, R. and Santos, L. M. P., 2009, 'Measuring the Impact of Bolsa Familia Program Based on Data from Health and Nutrition Days (Brazil)', Working Paper No.7, Iniciativa Latina y Caribe Sin Hambre, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Santiago
Does Brazil's Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer programme reduce children's malnutrition and food insecurity? This study assesses the programme's impact on the nutritional status of zero to five year olds. Data on 22,375 children's height/age, weight/age and weight/height shows that the PBF does improve child nutrition. To ensure an increase in beneficiaries' health levels, families need greater access to goods and services which interact with improved nutrition. The provision of more and better basic services and initiatives for inclusion in the labour market would ensure the PBF's effectiveness.
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Card, D., Ibarrarán, P. and Villa, J. M., 2011, Building in an Evaluation Component for Active Labor Market Programs: a Practitioner’s Guide’, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington DC
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See more detailed information on types of social protection interventions.