Global issues and debates

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Coverage, scale and systems

The last 15 years have seen a huge increase in social protection programmes, both the number of programmes and number of countries which have programmes (Gentilini et al., 2014). In Sub-Saharan Africa in 2010, 21 countries had unconditional cash transfer programmes; in 2013, this number had almost doubled to 37 countries. Globally, the number of countries with conditional cash transfers increased from 27 in 2008 to 52 in 2013 (Gentilini et al., 2014). The World Bank estimates that more than 1 billion people in developing countries participate in at least one social assistance programme (Gentilini et al., 2014). There is wide variation in coverage, with most programmes only reaching the middle poor and middle-income countries, not the extreme poor (Gentilini et al., 2014). In particular, low-income countries struggle to extend coverage to a significant proportion of people in poverty, on average only reaching 10 per cent of the population (Gentilini et al., 2014).

The increase in social protection programmes has resulted in moving away from fragmented individual programmes towards integrated social protection systems (Gentilini et al., 2014). At the smallest level, pilot programmes can be effective in testing concepts, stimulating government interest and demonstrating feasibility and impact, but there is little evidence that pilot programmes lead to national programmes (Garcia & Moore, 2012: 170; IATT, 2008). Pilots may even detract from or undermine government efforts, by their focus on demonstrating impact rather than building functional systems (IATT, 2008). Historically, most countries have implemented a programmatic approach, typically following the sequence: employment injury; old-age pensions, disability and survivors’ benefits; sickness, health and maternity coverage; and finally child and unemployment benefits (ILO, 2014).

More recently, efforts have focused on building and strengthening comprehensive social protection systems. This includes governmental institutions to steer and coordinate social protection strategy; management information systems; and unified registries of beneficiary information (Gentilini et al., 2014). An effective system needs attention at the administrative, programme and policy levels (World Bank, 2011). Systems thinking is a holistic approach based on the belief that each part of a system is best understood in the context of its relationships with other parts and other systems. Conceptually this means analysing the social, economic and political spheres around the object of analysis. This move towards systems thinking has also contributed to the large increase in the number of countries with a national social protection policy or strategy (Gentilini et al., 2014).


Social protection in low-income contexts typically comprises fragmented approaches and programmes, which make coordinated scale-up difficult (IATT, 2008). There is broad agreement in the literature that social protection works best when it is integrated with social services and social security, and scale-up should aim towards integrating individual programmes into a holistic state-led social protection system. Effective scale-up requires systems thinking rather than a focus on particular sectors or demographics (IATT, 2008).

Scale-up often means moving from donor-funded pilot schemes to formal adoption of the concept as public policy by governments (Ellis, 2012). There is a correlation between institutional location and income: as countries’ GDP increases, social protection programmes move from being donor or NGO-owned, towards being housed within government ministries (Garcia & Moore, 2012: 138). Scale-up thus requires domestic and political support (Garcia & Moore, 2012: 188). This makes scale-up a political process, but scaling-up has usually focused on technical solutions rather than strategies to generate political will and commitment (IATT, 2008).

Key texts

Gentilini, U., Honorati, M. & Yemtsov, R. (2014). The state of social safety nets 2014. Washington DC: World Bank.
This global report provides information on the state of social safety nets in developing and emerging countries. The World Bank definition of ‘safety nets’ largely refers to social assistance programmes. Using data from 146 countries the report provides new estimates on the coverage of social safety net programmes, their features, level of government spending, and recent empirical evidence. It also reviews important policy and practical developments and highlights emerging innovations.
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Garcia, M. & Moore, C. (2012). The cash dividend: the rise of cash transfer programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington DC: World Bank.
This review examines 120 CT programmes implemented in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) between 2000-2009. The book presents the results of impact evaluations, and the political economy of programmes. It highlights the idiosyncrasies of SSA and presents lessons learned. As the programmes are diverse, there are a number of context-specific conclusions, responding to the unique challenges of the region. Particularly, SSA programmes are more often unconditional, address basic welfare issues such as food security, have a high level of community involvement, do not focus on women as recipients, and use new technologies such as mobile phones.
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Inter-Agency Task Team (IATT) on Children and HIV and AIDS: Working Group on Social Protection. (2008). Expanding Social Protection for Vulnerable Children and Families: Learning from an Institutional Perspective. Inter-Agency Task Team (IATT) on Children and HIV and AIDS: Working Group on Social Protection.
Which ministry is best placed to maximise social protection effectiveness? This paper reviews established national social protection programmes in eight countries to examine experiences of scaling up. It examines institutional dynamics by looking at the location of programmes within ministries, leadership and drivers of change, and promotes a holistic, integrated approach. It finds that relations between ministries are an important factor determining effectiveness. It notes that cash transfers often dominate the dialogue, which detracts from comprehensive programming and is less effective than a broader focus on integrating social transfers and social services. Success depends on clear leadership, finance coordination, and donor harmonisation, including support from a senior government official.
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ILO. (2014). World Social Protection Report 2014/15: Building economic recovery, inclusive development and social justice. International Labour Organization.
This report offers a comprehensive body of evidence both on the impressive progress made over the last few years and on the remaining gaps that need to be filled. Based on a life-cycle approach, the report provides an overview of the current organisation of social protection systems, coverage, benefits and expenditures for children, women and men of working age, and older people. It also analyses trends and recent policies, and calls for the expansion of social protection in pursuit of crisis recovery, inclusive development and social justice.
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World Bank. (2011). Resilience Equity and Opportunity: 2012-2022 Social Protection and Labor Strategy. Washington DC: World Bank.
The World Bank strategy paper outlines its 10-year plan on social protection and labour. The overarching goals of the strategy are to help improve resilience, equity, and opportunity for people in both low- and middle-income countries. The strategic direction is to help developing countries move from fragmented approaches to more harmonised systems. This new strategy addresses gaps in current practice by helping make social protection and labour more responsive, more productive, and more inclusive of excluded regions and groups—notably low-income countries and the very poor, the disabled, those in the informal sector and women.
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Ellis, F. (2012). ‘We Are All Poor Here’: Economic Difference, Social Divisiveness and Targeting Cash Transfers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Journal of Development Studies, 48(2), 201-214.
This peer-reviewed article looks at the social costs and political acceptability of social transfers. It argues that cash transfers targeted to the poorest must be of a very low monetary value, otherwise they create social tension and threaten social cohesion. Poverty-targeted transfers are the least likely to be adopted and scaled up by governments, while broader-targeted transfers such as pensions are more likely to be adopted by governments. The article identifies critical trade-offs between the cost and coverage of different types of social transfer, their social acceptability and their political traction.
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Financing and affordability

Sources of funding

  • Government: Most social protection is funded by national taxes, with some support from donors depending on the level of national resources available (Hanlon et al., 2010: 154). Since few people in developing countries are in formal-sector employment, tax funding tends to come from indirect or consumption taxes (Hanlon et al., 2010: 154). Governments can support social protection programmes by reallocating expenditure; obtaining aid grants; or borrowing (Grosh et al., 2008) or they can support social protection more generally through macroeconomic policy; public expenditure; tax policy; and regulation (Barrientos, 2007).
  • Development assistance: For donors, using country systems is a central Paris principle, which can mean funding through general and sector budget support. Budget support can enable linkages across sectors and is more flexible than structural adjustment or programme-specific funding (Barrientos, 2007). Donors are not always able to commit to a medium or long-term timeframe, so partnership with government may be the best approach, where donors provide start-up funds and governments gradually take over the programme (Barrientos, 2007; Harris, 2013).
  • Household: The second largest source of social protection financing is out-of-pocket expenses paid by service users, but this mainly applies to health expenses (Barrientos, 2007). People may choose between a number of options for financing social protection: investment in human capital (self-protection); savings; and insurance (Barrientos, 2007). Micro-savings may be an appropriate way to self-fund as they are effective in small losses-high frequency contingencies although, if micro-finance institutions make savings compulsory and discourage easy access to withdrawals, they may provide only limited social protection (Barrientos, 2007).

Where programmes are operating well and only require funding, the literature is in agreement that a mix of financing sources is more sustainable than donor funding alone. Improving the efficiency of the tax system is an important part of increasing government social spending (Hanlon et al., 2010). There is a strong concern in the literature that donor funding is less predictable, long-term and sustainable than domestic financing, and that domestic resource mobilisation should be the priority (Garcia & Moore, 2012: 187; Harris, 2013).

There is a consensus among donors that moving towards funding and support of social protection systems is preferable to just supporting individual programmes. The Social Protection Floors approach aims to build integrated social protection systems over time. It highlights the importance of increasing fiscal space, to create secure and sustainable financing over the long term (Harris, 2013).

Costs of social protection

Using benchmarking data from 87 developing and transition countries, and OECD and World Bank expenditure reviews, Grosh et al. (2008) estimate that most developing countries spend around one to two per cent of GDP on social protection. There is variation, with some middle-income countries (MICs) spending a lower percentage than some low income countries (LICs). The World Bank review in 2014 shows that 107 developing and emerging countries spend an average of 1.6 per cent of GDP on social assistance (Gentilini et al., 2014).

The ILO assessed the potential costs of a package of basic social protection (Old age pensions and disability pensions; basic child benefits; and public works for 10 per cent of the population) as a range between 2.2 and 5.7 per cent of GDP (Arnold et al., 2011: 69), which the ILO concludes is affordable. The cost of social protection is driven, in part, by the transfer value. DFID suggest that cash transfer programmes cost between 8 and 17 GBP per beneficiary per month (Arnold et al., 2011: 64).

Key texts

Hanlon, J., Barrientos, A. & Hulme, D. (2010). Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press.
Are cash transfers affordable and practical in low income countries? Chapter 9 provides an overview of the mechanics and costs of cash transfers (CTs) and argues that they can be used even in the poorest countries, if governments take control, and design and fund their own programmes. It examines some of the costs of financing CTs and concludes that improving the tax system is central to affordability. Donors maintain their own agendas in funding CTs (usually preferring human capital and safety nets objectives rather than redistribution), and LICs must develop autonomy from donors to utilise social protection for long-term development.

Barrientos, A. (2007). Financing Social Protection (BWPI Working Paper 5). Manchester: Brooks World Poverty Institute (BWPI).
The paper considers the main sources and key constraints of the financing mix for social protection in middle- and low-income countries. It argues that achieving an appropriate financing mix is essential to ensure the resources required are available. It concludes that regressive but efficient taxation, coupled with progressive social protection expenditures, could be the most effective strategy for expanding social protection. Improving efficiency in collecting existing taxes is the priority. As these options are limited, external finance is crucial to supporting social protection in low-income countries (LICs). Three main donor approaches are assessed: structural adjustment finance; general budget support; and programme or project aid. It suggests budget support may be the most appropriate route. Donors can provide funding in the short-term while governments increase tax revenue.
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Grosh, M., del Ninno, C., Tesliuc, E. & Ouerghi, A. (2008). For Protection and Promotion: The Design and Implementation of Effective Safety Nets. Washington DC: World Bank.
How have safety nets been financed, and are there alternative options? Chapter 3 reviews financing and spending on safety nets, suggesting that reallocating funds from other expenditure is the preferable source of financing. Raising taxation and donor finance both have political economy costs and benefits which need to be weighed. The best possible strategy is to fund safety nets counter-cyclically, meaning funding is increased in times of growth to protect against times of crisis, but few governments manage this. Both central and local government have a role to play in managing safety nets, which presents challenges for coordination and responsibility.
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Harris, E. (2013). Financing social protection floors: Considerations of fiscal space. International Social Security Review, 66(3-4), 111-143.
Effective and affordable social protection is within reach of even the poorest countries. Many are putting into place elements of a social protection floor, aiming to scale up and add other components over time. Both domestic and external resources have been used effectively. This article argues that policy decisions must carefully consider the sustainability and predictability of funding sources, and their implications for future fiscal space. Domestic resource mobilisation is the priority in establishing and expanding a social protection floor.
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See also: Lucas, B. (2010). Financing and Cost-effectiveness of Cash Transfer Schemes: What does the evidence base on the costing, financing and cost effectiveness of cash transfer schemes tell us? (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 701). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.

Political economy

There is growing recognition that decisions about social protection are political, and politics determines the level and outcomes of social protection (Hickey, 2009).

Social protection has several areas of political debate and ideological contestation. Targeting is a common debate. For example, the means-tested cash transfer for children in Mongolia was later changed to a universal child benefit as the government adopted more populist and socialist values (Slater & Farrington, 2009). Dependency is a second area of debate. Governments in Sub-Saharan Africa are much more likely to choose Public Works Programmes (PWPs) for the able-bodied poor than UCTs and to limit programmes’ duration, as this is seen as preventing dependency on hand-outs (McCord, 2012). Pensions are historically popular for decision-makers, as they tend to benefit whole households, to be financed from government revenues, and, occasionally, to serve wider objectives such as nation-building (Hujo & Cook, 2012). In practice, how these debates are resolved depends on fiscal space, public support, and the political power of the different ministries involved.

Public support and acceptability is a key factor in social protection policy decisions. Safety nets are publically popular up to a certain level of spending, at which point support switches to social welfare and policies such as insurance, health and education services (Grosh et al., 2008: 67). Provision of public goods through social protection can also increase popularity among recipient voters (Zucco, 2011), generating immediate political returns. These may potentially alienate wealthy or higher tax payers if they are excluded from social protection benefits (Slater & Farrington, 2009). Different factors affect different groups’ support for social protection, such as who pays, who benefits, and the perceived value or threat of the programme.

Key texts

Hickey, S. (2009). The politics of protecting the poorest: moving beyond the “anti-politics machine”? Political Geography, 28(8), 473-483.
What forms of politics lie behind social protection interventions that have successfully reduced poverty in developing countries? This paper shows that liberal tenets are not as important as deeper political processes in securing poverty reduction. Case-study analysis in eight countries demonstrates that the most important political factors in pro-poor politics and poverty reduction are political society rather than civil society, followed by the state-society ‘contract’ and domestic interactions, rather than ‘ownership’ and external actors. These ?ndings suggest signi?cant rethinking is required within international development regarding the forms of politics that are presumed to be pro-poor.
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McCord, A. (2012). The politics of social protection: why are public works programmes so popular with governments and donors? (Background Paper). London: ODI.
This note is an initial exploration of the political economy and reasons for the popularity of PWPs to promote social protection and employment in low-income and fragile states. The research indicates that the expected benefits of PWPs are not necessarily based on evidence of positive impacts and outcomes, and decisions to implement these programmes are rather based on political choices. Political economy analysis is a useful tool for analysing these decision-making processes.
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Hujo, K. & Cook, S. (2012). Political Economy of Social Pensions in Asia. In Sri Wening Handayani and Babken Babajanian (eds.). Social Protection for Older Persons: Social Pensions in Asia. 11-59.
This chapter explores why countries in Asia have adopted social pension programmes and which factors have influenced their design. It provides an understanding of the politics of social pension reform in Asia and identifies policy lessons. There are clear differences among countries, but there are some points of convergence over which conditions are conducive to the introduction of pensions: robust affordability studies; linkages with poverty reduction and long-term development strategies; and political support.
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Zucco, C. (2010). Cash Transfers and Voting Behavior: Redistribution and Clientelism in Developing Democracies. Princeton University, Princeton.
What was the political impact of the government’s Bolsa Família CCT programme in the 2006 Brazilian elections? This study concludes that Bolsa Família undoubtedly helped to re-elect President ‘Lula’ da Silva. While there is still considerable debate over the long-term implications of CCTs, the significant pro-incumbent electoral effects identified suggest that CCTs could be both ‘good policy’ and ‘good politics’. Knowledge among politicians of these electoral effects could increase political will for the implementation of CCTs and reduce reliance on clientelism.
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See also:


Targeting refers to any mechanism to identify eligible individuals and groups, for the purposes of transferring resources or preferential access (Devereux et al., forthcoming). This is ultimately a political decision as to who deserves assistance. There are ongoing debates about targeting approaches and the appropriate degree of targeting.

Targeting has a variety of aims: to maximise poverty reduction; to contain the costs of provision and to make the most efficient use of resources when faced with budget limits; or for political gains (Devereux et al., forthcoming). The broadest form of targeting is categorical, which aims to reach every citizen passing a basic criterion, often age (e.g. pensions) or status (e.g. households with children under five years old). This may be seen as fair, and is unlikely to cause social tensions (Ellis, 2012). More narrowly targeted programmes tend to have more complex criteria, usually based on poverty or vulnerability status (e.g. consumption; assets; income level; dependency level), or more than one eligibility criterion.

Untargeted programmes (sometimes referred to as ‘universal’) are likely to promote social unity and cohesion, but may not be progressive nor affordable (Slater & Farrington, 2009). Targeting may be more progressive than universalism because a greater share of resources reaches the poor (Slater & Farrington, 2009). Although programmes may draw on principles of universality, in reality they are always targeted to some extent, as few governments can afford to provide unlimited access to social protection for every citizen.

Key texts

Devereux, S., Masset, E., Sabates-Wheeler, R., Samson, M., Rivas, A. & Te Lintelo, D. (forthcoming, 2015). Evaluating the targeting effectiveness of social transfers: A literature review. Brighton: IDS
This review summarises knowledge on the errors, costs and secondary consequences (both positive and negative) of targeting in actual social transfer programmes in developing countries, in a comparative way across different types of programmes and different targeting mechanisms. It offers an updated synthesis of selected thinking and evidence on targeting. This report is structured around a review of empirical evidence from the literature on three key aspects of targeting – errors, costs, and cost-effectiveness.

Slater, R. & Farrington, J. (2009). Targeting of Social Transfers: A Review for DFID. London: ODI.
This paper assesses the costs, effectiveness and efficiency of social transfers. It concludes that means-testing or proxy testing may be beyond the capacity and finances of LICs, and that social categorical targeting is likely to remain a popular policy option, partly because of ease and partly because of political acceptability. Social protection interventions are invariably a patchwork of different programmes, and it remains important to track who is and is not reached and to design new interventions for the excluded.
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See also: Coady, D., Grosh, M. E. & Hoddinott, J. (2004). Targeting of transfers in developing countries: Review of lessons and experience. Washington DC: World Bank.


There is an intensive debate about the desirability and effectiveness of conditionalities (also called conditions or co-responsibilities).

Some argue that conditionality is required to incentivise human development because the poor lack information or have misconceptions about investing in health and education and will not opt for this voluntarily (Arnold et al., 2011: 49; Fiszbein & Schady, 2009).

The counterargument is that the poor are rational actors, who will use public services effectively when cash constraints are eased (Arnold et al., 2011: 49). Evidence on UCTs shows that beneficiaries use the cash for more or less the same purposes as conditions encourage: healthcare; purchasing better quality food; sending children to school.

Rigorous evidence is emerging on both sides, with no conclusive lessons drawn (Baird et al., 2013). Both conditionality and non-conditionality are effective (Baird et al., 2011). Conditionalities should only be used in environments where the conditioned services exist and are able to cope with the increased demand (Arnold et al., 2011: 50), and where beneficiaries are capable of fulfilling conditions (Garcia & Moore, 2012: 219). Conditionality is commonly used in Latin America, and much less commonly in Sub-Saharan Africa (Garcia & Moore, 2012: 117). Fragile states commonly use UCTs (Garcia & Moore, 2012: 118).

Key texts

Fiszbein, A. & Schady, N. (2009). Conditional Cash Transfers: Reducing Present and Future Poverty. World Bank Policy Research Report. Washington DC: World Bank.
Do conditional cash transfer programmes (CCTs) succeed in reducing inequality? Are they effective in producing better development outcomes? This 400-page report argues that CCTs have been effective in redistributing income to the poor, while recognising that even the best-designed and best-managed programme cannot fulfil all the needs of a comprehensive social protection system. Evidence suggests that to maximise their potential impact, CCTs should be complemented with other interventions, particularly those that focus on outcomes rather than the use of services alone. CCTs represent the best means of redistribution when: poor households do not sufficiently invest in the human capital of their children; and when political realities necessitate that redistribution be conditioned on good behaviour.
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Baird, S., McIntosh, C. & Ozler, B. (2011). Cash or Condition? Evidence from a Cash Transfer Experiment. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126(4), 1709-1753.
This landmark study in Malawi designed a rigorous experiment comparing similar groups, one receiving a CCT and one receiving an UCT. The results showed no significant differences in outcomes. The CCT had higher impacts for enrolment, English reading comprehension, mathematics, and cognitive skills, and the UCT had higher impacts in reducing early marriage and pregnancy rates among out-of-school girls. This trade-off highlights that programme objectives must be carefully considered before deciding which kind of CT to employ – is the aim to increase schooling or decrease early marriage?
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Shocks and risks

Some forms of social protection aim principally at helping households absorb shocks and mitigate risk. Shocks can be either idiosyncratic, affecting individuals or households (e.g. illness, job loss, deaths, weddings), or covariate, affecting whole communities (e.g. drought, failed harvest, price rises, conflict). There is much more evidence on social protection as a response to systemic or covariate shocks than on whether and how social protection helps protect individuals and households from idiosyncratic shocks.

Growing attention is being given to the potential for social protection systems to be able to scale-up in response to crises or shocks. The logic is that, in certain circumstances, this will be more timely and effective than a humanitarian response.


The evidence of social protection programmes being able to respond to shocks in LICs is currently limited (Béné et al., 2012). Social protection was a relatively effective response to the food, fuel and financial (3F) crisis, but worked significantly better in countries with pre-existing social protection schemes, and for people in formal-sector employment (McCord, 2013). Over time, many low- and middle-income countries expanded or introduced social protection programmes as a response to the crisis (ILO, 2014). However, coverage and scale of programmes remained too small to meet the level of need (McCord, 2013).

Households experience crisis impacts differently, and the newly poor may have different needs and characteristics than the chronic poor, meaning existing systems may not be appropriate (McCord, 2013). Particularly, CCTs are usually intended as longer-term human capital investments and may not be appropriate as a crisis response aimed at transient poverty (Fiszbein et al., 2011). Existing CCTs in Latin America were adapted to respond to the 3F crisis by extending coverage, re-targeting to include newly poor households, or increasing benefits (Grosh et al., 2014). There are no impact evaluations of these changes’ effects on household incomes (Grosh et al., 2014).

Some countries used the crisis as a window of opportunity to make major changes in scale or administration of their programmes. For most people, informal social protection provided by friends and family was a more important source of security than formal social protection (Heltberg et al., 2013).

Key texts

Béné, C., Devereux, S. & Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2012). Shocks and social protection in the Horn of Africa: Analysis from the productive safety net programme in Ethiopia (IDS Working Paper 395). Brighton: IDS.
Using panel survey data from the Ethiopian Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), this paper explores the degree to which the PSNP has been successful in protecting its beneficiaries against the various recent shocks that have affected the Horn of Africa. The analysis shows that PSNP beneficiaries who have been exposed to shocks have lower food security and wellbeing than PSNP recipients who had not been exposed to those same shocks. Drought stands out as the shock which most significantly affects households but illness and idiosyncratic shocks also appear to have significant impacts on food security. The results suggest that, although the PSNP seems to contribute to protecting households against shocks, the positive effects of the programme are not robust enough to shield recipient households completely against the impacts of severe shocks.
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McCord, A. (2013). ODI Shockwatch: Review of the literature on social protection shock responses and readiness. London: ODI.
How was social protection used as a response to the 3F crisis? The literature focuses on three conventional options: social assistance, social security, and active labour market policies. There is little focus on alternative social protection instruments. Scale-up is only possible when programmes are well established, and it can be hard for them to respond quickly to a crisis. Unemployment insurance, PWPs, and active labour market policies are all considered ineffective.
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Fiszbein, A., Ringold, D. & Srinivasan, S. (2011). Cash Transfers, Children and the Crisis: Protecting Current and Future Investments. Development Policy Review, 29(5), 585-601
This article describes new CCTs aimed at children introduced in response to the 3F crisis. The paper concludes that CCTs are better than no social assistance programme, but that there are drawbacks in their design that make them less appropriate for emergency contexts than other forms of social protection. The paper highlights the importance of having a system of safety nets in place before a crisis hits, as scaling up is much easier than implementing new programmes.
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Grosh, M., Fruttero, A. & Oliveri, M.L. (2014). The Role of Social Protection in the Crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Grosh, M., Bussolo, M., & Freije, S. (Eds). Understanding the Poverty Impact of the Global Financial Crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean. Washington DC: World Bank. 199-262.
This chapter provides an overview of pre-crisis social protection in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by an examination of how labour market and social assistance programmes developed and changed during the crisis period.
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Heltberg, R., Hossain, N., Reva, A. & Turk, C. (2013). Coping and Resilience during the Food, Fuel, and Financial Crises. The Journal of Development Studies49(5), 705-718.
Which social protection interventions were most useful in the 3F crisis? This article aggregates qualitative field research from 17 developing countries. It finds that the main safety nets for most people were relatives, friends and mutual solidarity groups, which depleted as the crisis went on. Formal social protection was much less accessible for most people, and inadequate for a global shock. The key problem was inadequate coverage, but other concerns included poor design and targeting, inadequate amounts and poor quality (of in-kind assistance). Free or subsidised education and school feeding programmes were popular and important sources of support, as were free or subsidised health services.
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Climate change

Social protection, climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) all share the same motivating principle of seeking to mitigate risks, reduce vulnerability and build resilience to livelihood shocks (Vincent & Cull, 2012). This overlap lends itself to integrated policies and programmes which address both social and environmental factors, with a long-term, preventative approach. This is known as ‘adaptive social protection’.

Social protection, which helps protect against current shocks, can also create space for building adaptive capacity to protect against future shocks (Vincent & Cull, 2012). It could be used to target those whose livelihoods and status are vulnerable to climate change, reducing their dependence on climate-sensitive livelihoods strategies (Davies et al., 2009).

The evidence base that social protection can effectively reduce vulnerability to climate change is still quite thin, but is increasing (Vincent & Cull, 2012).

Key texts

Vincent, K. & Cull, T. (2012). Adaptive Social Protection: Making Concepts a Reality. Brighton: IDS.
This guide provides an inventory of existing toolkits on incorporating CCA and DRR into development projects and programmes, but notes a lack of focus on social protection programmes. To address this gap, the guide outlines the process required to incorporate CCA and/or DRR into social protection programmes. It provides case studies of integration, highlights barriers (institutional, legislative, technical and political) and suggests ways of addressing them. Social protection policymakers could broaden vulnerability assessments, taking into account projected future, as well as current, vulnerability.
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Davies, M., Guenther, B., Leavy, J., Mitchell, T. & Tanner, T. (2009). Climate Change Adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction and Social Protection: Complementary Roles in Agriculture and Rural Growth? (IDS Working Paper 320). Brighton: IDS.
How can synergies between social protection, DRR, and CCA be identified and developed? Social protection initiatives are unlikely to succeed in reducing poverty if they do not consider both the short- and long-term shocks and stresses associated with climate change. The ‘adaptive social protection’ framework helps to identify opportunities for social protection to enhance adaptation, and for social protection programmes to be more climate-resilient. Adaptive social protection involves a long-term perspective that considers the changing nature of climate-related shocks and stresses, draws on rights, and aims to transform livelihoods.
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Fragile and conflict-affected states

Cash transfers have been effective in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS), offering a protective mechanism which can be administered quickly and relatively easily, with immediate impact. Where ‘normal’ systems have been disrupted, or do not exist in fragile states, there is also an opportunity for testing innovative ways of delivering transfers. UCTs have been used effectively in Somalia, Afghanistan, and DRC among others (Harvey et al., 2007). These programmes have been focused more towards immediate relief as a safety net, rather than long-term or transformative social protection (Harvey et al., 2007).

In principle, the same range of CTs, insurance, and labour market interventions are appropriate in both FCAS and development contexts (Harvey et al., 2007).


Social protection is considered to be most appropriately delivered by the state, but this may not always be feasible in FCAS. There is a tension between the humanitarian norms of impartiality and neutrality, and social protection’s necessary links to the state (Harvey et al., 2007). Development actors may need to maintain distance from the state in order to protect humanitarian space and deliver assistance to all populations, which may make social protection a difficult instrument to implement (Harvey et al., 2007).

State institutions in FCAS may lack requisite capacity, political will, or health and education services. Development partners may not be able to work directly with governments in FCAS. Where social protection is managed by non-state providers, this may risk undermining the state or causing resentment, particularly where NGOs divert funding and skills from government. Some argue all programmes should align with state policies where possible, and eventually be transferred to state control (Harvey et al., 2007).

Carpenter et al. (2012) identify a series of challenges for delivering social protection in FCAS: low administrative capacity; small revenue base; predatory or abusive governments; high levels of insecurity and risk; and the possibility of targeting causing further conflict.

Key texts

Harvey, P., Holmes, R., Slater, R. & Martin. (2007). Social Protection in Fragile States. London: ODI.
Is it possible to deliver social protection effectively in states that lack will or capacity? The paper argues that existing social protection frameworks provide an appropriate starting point. It identifies that there are some tensions between social protection’s state-focused approach and the humanitarian principles of independence and neutrality, but these are not necessarily incompatible. Where states are abusive, unwilling or unable to engage, working through international actors is appropriate.
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Carpenter, S., Slater, R. & Mallett, R. (2012). Social Protection and Basic Services in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations. Secure Livelihoods Research Programme (SLRC). London: ODI.
What is the state of the evidence on social protection in fragile states? This review finds that the evidence base is quite weak, with patchy data, and poor-quality normative literature, with only scattered empirical examples. It shows that social protection in FCAS is delivered predominantly by non-state actors, usually INGOs or UN agencies, with projects that are generally small-scale, with limited coverage and delivering food- or cash-based assistance. Government social protection systems are often weak, and generally do not go beyond cash transfer programmes of limited coverage or World Bank-led social funds. Where they are more developed they are often ineffective, and people regularly pursue informal social protection strategies.
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See also: Haider, H. (2011). Cash transfers in fragile/conflict-affected environments (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.


Social protection may have potential to build state institutions and reinforce the social contract. This relationship is widely discussed but there is no rigorous evidence to support the link between social protection, state-building, and social cohesion (Carpenter et al., 2012). Most of the literature on this topic comes from FCAS, where there can be a post-conflict window of opportunity for state-building.

It is suggested that social protection may increase stability and state legitimacy by reinforcing the social contract (Harvey et al., 2007). Taking a universal rights-based approach to social protection, where all citizens become entitled to some benefits, can help restore some trust in public institutions (Jones & Shahrokh, 2013). Targeted approaches have been shown, in some contexts, to create social division, so may be best avoided in conflict-affected states and those with ethnic and social tensions. There is a tension between state-building objectives and the humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence (Harvey et al., 2007).