What is social protection?

Concepts and definitions

Social protection is concerned with protecting and helping those who are poor and vulnerable, such as children, women, older people, people living with disabilities, the displaced, the unemployed, and the sick. There are ongoing debates about which interventions constitute social protection, and which category they fit under, as social protection overlaps with a number of livelihoods, human capital and food security interventions (Harvey et al., 2007).

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 definition is in line with usage in international development, and may be different from social policy definitions in high-income countries. Social protection is usually provided by the state; it is theoretically conceived as part of the ‘state-citizen’ contract, in which states and citizens have rights and responsibilities to each other (Harvey et al., 2007).


The objectives of social protection vary widely, from reducing poverty and vulnerability, building human capital, empowering women and girls, improving livelihoods, and responding to economic and other shocks. As a result, the form and function of social protection programmes can be quite disparate, according to the particular objective (Hanlon et al., 2010: 28).

‘Safety nets’ are a form of social protection which help people meet immediate basic needs in times of crisis. Typical short-term goals are to mitigate the immediate impact of shocks and to smooth consumption. The World Bank has a slightly different definition, which defines ‘safety nets’ as social assistance programmes (Gentilini et al., 2014).

Other forms of social protection aim at longer-term development and enabling people to move permanently out of poverty (Babajanian et al., 2014). Long-term goals include improving opportunities for inclusive growth, human capital development, equity and social stability. Some social protection programmes intend to be transformative, supporting equity, empowerment and human rights.

Analytical concepts

There are several different conceptual approaches to analysing social protection objectives and impacts. Each conceptualises potential impacts in different ways: transformation; human capital; vulnerability; and human rights. There are few theories of change; the best-developed ones are on cash transfers, which can be found in Browne (2013).

Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler (2004) provide the most commonly used conceptual framework, which describes four social protection functions:

  • Protective: providing relief from deprivation (e.g. income benefits, state pensions)
  • Preventative: averting deprivation (e.g. savings clubs, social insurance)
  • Promotive: enhancing incomes and capabilities (e.g. inputs)
  • Transformative: social equity and inclusion, empowerment and rights (e.g. labour laws)

The first three functions (the three Ps in the PPP+T framework) were originally conceptualised by the ILO. The addition of the transformative element positions social protection not just to alleviate poverty but to transform lives, through pursuing policies that rebalance the unequal power relations which cause vulnerabilities. In practice, social protection interventions usually cover multiple functions and objectives.

Most social protection frameworks also conceptualise social protection as an investment in human capital which increases capacities and the accumulation of productive assets (Barrientos, 2010), breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Social protection contributes to human capital either directly, by providing food, skills and services; or indirectly, by providing cash and access, which enable households to invest in their own development.

Another common theory is that social protection reduces vulnerability and risk by providing protection against shocks. This assumes that vulnerability to hazards constrains human and economic development (Barrientos & Hulme, 2009), and that risk management stabilises income and consumption, and is an investment in poverty reduction (Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler, 2007).

A small number of countries (including India, South Africa and Uruguay) and organisations recognise social protection as a human right and an entitlement against low standards of living (Jones & Shahrokh, 2013).

Key texts

Devereux, S. & Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2004). Transformative social protection (IDS Working Paper 232). Brighton: IDS.
How can the broader, transformative potential for social protection be implemented in pro-poor programming? This paper outlines the transformative framework for social protection, which can achieve any of the four objectives: Protective: providing relief from deprivation; Preventative: averting deprivation; Promotive: enhancing incomes and capabilities; Transformative: social equity and inclusion, empowerment and rights. It argues against the welfare-ist approach to social protection, and posits that social protection can achieve more than economic security.
See full text

Barrientos, A. & Hulme, D. (2009). Social Protection for the Poor and Poorest in Developing Countries: Reflections on a Quiet Revolution: Commentary. Oxford Development Studies, 37(4), 439-456.
The rapid rise of social protection can be considered a ‘quiet revolution’. How has this happened and what is its future potential? In the last decade, social protection has become one of three main elements of development, along with growth and human development. Its conceptual basis has moved from a focus on risk to a broader focus on basic needs and capabilities. This is also reflected in practice, with a rapid scaling up of programmes and policies combining income transfers with basic services, employment guarantees or asset building. Three factors will determine the future course of social protection in developing countries: the role of external actors, the bottlenecks of sustainable finance and delivery capacity, and politics. Current evidence gaps are: (1) scaling up social protection coverage to the national level in low-income countries; and (2) extending social protection into fragile states and difficult environments.
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Devereux, S. & Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2007). Editorial introduction: Debating social protection. IDS Bulletin, 38(3), 1-7.
This paper presents five conceptual frameworks for social protection: Social Risk Management (World Bank); Transformative Social Protection (IDS Sussex); Asset Thresholds (Michael Carter and Christopher Barrett); the POVNET approach (DAC/OECD); and the Universal Social Minimum (Koy Thomson/ActionAid). The second part of the special issue looks at practice, focusing on the areas of debates over conditionality, cash vs food, and targeting.
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Jones, N. & Shahrokh, T. (2013). Social protection pathways: shaping social justice outcomes for the most marginalised, now and post-2015. London: ODI.
The potential of social protection to promote social justice outcomes for diverse marginalised social groups is increasingly being recognised. This Background Note provides a theory of change for understanding macro- to micro-impact pathways for transformative social protection. The research highlights that in order to tackle multidimensional vulnerability in a sustainable way, it is vital for social protection programmes to be designed and governed to promote social inclusion and accountability.
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See also: Browne, E. (2013). Theories of Change for Cash Transfers. (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 913), Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.

Selected development partner positions

International Labour Organization

The ILO views social protection as a human right. It focuses on employment, particularly the decent work agenda, which extends rights to informal workers as well as the formally employed. It co-leads the Social Protection Floor Initiative within the UN, which promotes a basic set of social transfers and universal access to essential social services. It emphasises the need to implement comprehensive, coherent and coordinated social protection and employment policies to guarantee services and income security across the life cycle, paying particular attention to vulnerable groups.

Strategy document: ILO. (2012). Social Security for all: Building social protection floors and comprehensive social security systems. Geneva: ILO.

World Bank

The Bank links social protection to labour and jobs. The Bank’s 2012-2022 Social Protection and Labour strategy has the main objective of helping countries move from fragmented approaches to harmonised systems. The overarching goals of the strategy are to help improve resilience, equity, and opportunity for people in both low- and middle-income countries. Social protection helps individuals and societies to manage risk and volatility; alleviates chronic poverty and protects from deprivation; and promotes equality of opportunity through building human capital and equipping people to improve their livelihoods.

Strategy document: World Bank. (2011). Resilience Equity and Opportunity: 2012-2022 Social Protection and Labor Strategy. Washington DC: World Bank.

European Commission

The EC views social protection as helping reduce poverty and vulnerability, and underpinning inclusive and sustainable development. The 2010 European Report on Development calls for social protection to be made an integral part of EU development policy. The goal of EU development cooperation in supporting social protection is to improve equity and efficiency in provision, while supporting social inclusion and cohesion.

Key document: European Commission. (2012). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions: Social Protection in European Union Development Cooperation. Brussels: EC.

International Monetary Fund

The IMF did not engage directly with social protection until recently (Barrientos & Hulme, 2009). In the wake of the global financial crisis, it has supported spending on social safety nets in select countries. It does not have a social protection strategy.

DFID (UK government)

DFID defines social protection as a sub-set of public actions that help address risk, vulnerability and chronic poverty. It has mainly focused on social assistance, particularly social and cash transfers. It is supportive of the move from fragmented social protection programmes to comprehensive systems.

Key document: Arnold, C., with Conway, T. & Greenslade, M. (2011). Cash Transfers Literature Review. London: Department for International Development.

DFAT (Australian government)

DFAT focuses on publicly funded initiatives that provide regular and predictable cash or in-kind transfers to individuals, households and communities to reduce poverty and vulnerability and foster resilience and empowerment. Its approach has three pillars—food and nutrition security, education and health. It also focuses on developing integrated social protection systems.

Strategy document: DFAT. (2014). DFAT Social Protection Framework. Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

GIZ (German government)

GIZ’s social protection work helps establish integrated social security systems and extends coverage to groups of people who have hitherto been excluded from social protection. The main target groups are poor families and those threatened with poverty. It aims to facilitate social justice, basic protection against poverty, and provide micro-insurance.