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Social Protection 2.

Exploring Issues, Evidence and Debates in a Globalizing World

Ugo Gentilini* and Steven Were Omamo

Draft, February 2011

Abstract. This paper reviews the growing literature on social protection. While not new, the concept
evolved remarkably in recent years. It is approached from a multitude of perspectives, and intersects
with broader bodies of literature – particularly around public policy, pro-poor growth, rights,
humanitarian strategies, and aid effectiveness – as well as feeding into specific programmatic issues
(conditionality, targeting, transfer selection and delivery). This blend of challenges and approaches
has made debates often elusive and polarized. The paper examines the evolution and definitions of
social protection, and unbundles critical policy, institutional and implementation quandaries. Taken
together, these considerations shape a set of context-specific models of social protection. The four
core areas identified in the conclusions may help chart future directions for social protection research
and practice.

Keywords: Social protection, safety nets, risk, rights, public policy, insurance, transfers, foreign aid.

* Corresponding author. Comments are welcome and could be sent to The authors are,
respectively, Policy Officer at WFP‟s HQ and Director of WFP‟s Liaison Office at the African Union. The paper only
reflects their personal views, not necessarily WFP‟s.
1. Introduction
In its most basic meaning, social protection is not a new concept. In essence, it captures how
members in societies support each other in times of distress, whereas societies are represented by
members of tribal communities, state taxpayers or group of nations. Over the centuries – from the
industrial revolution to the era of globalization – social protection has been a central tenet of
countries‟ social contract as economies become more formalized, market-oriented and
More recently, the concept has been conceptualized from a wide range of perspectives, ranging from
a macroeconomic stabilizer to needs-based emergency responses; from supporting households
managing risks to rights-based approaches. The overall frameworks that emerge point to multiple
objectives – spanning over assistance, insurance and social transformation – that intersect broader
traditional debates around public policies, development strategies, and aid effectiveness.
At the same time, discussion of social protection increasingly transcends national boundaries. While
OECD countries are facing significant challenges in welfare reform (The Economist 2010a, 2010b),
emerging economies are playing a growing role in shaping the global social protection agenda. While
their systems are still developing1, countries like Brazil, China and South Africa are proactively
experimenting, expanding and challenging policy models, hence bulging as new poles of innovation
in social protection (Barnett and Chalk 2010; Devereux 2010; Ribe et al. 2010). Furthermore, in
fragile states and contexts of protracted crises, social protection is also revitalizing longstanding
debates on reconciling humanitarian and developmental approaches (FAO 2010; Maxwell et al.
2010; Barrett et al. 2008).
Clearly, this blend of old and new dynamics not only redesigns trajectories in research, learning and
experience-sharing2, but also elevates the level of complexities for policy-making. As world
economies – and food systems within them – grow more interconnected and coexist with chronic
food insecurity (Naylor and Falcon 2010; Reardon et al. 2009), Tanzi‟s (2000) call for „imagination‟
in repositioning social protection in a globalizing world remains ever-compelling.
Taken together, these considerations suggest that the breadth and depth of issues that conflate in
social protection makes it a complex, fluid and sometimes elusive matter. Therefore, this paper aims
to unbundle and examine key factors that underpin current social protection debates. To this effect,

For example, according to the ILO (2010), the share of working-age population contributing to an old-age pension
schemes in OECD countries averages nearly 70 percent. That indicator, which signals the degree of formality and
integration of a social protection system, tends to be considerably lower in Brazil (45.2), China (22.6) and India (6.4).
More generally, the report estimated that “… only one-third of countries globally (inhabited by 28 percent of the global
population) have comprehensive social protection systems (…) [and that] only about 20 percent of the world‟s working-
age population (and their families) have effective access to comprehensive social protection” (ILO 2010, p.1).
For example, emerging countries are not only supporting advancements in low-income contexts – e.g. see the Africa-
Brazil Cooperation Program on Social Protection (Andrade 2008) – but also in OECD countries, as illustrated by a
Mexico-inspired conditional cash transfer program launched in New York City (Riccio 2010). As a recent symposium
report put it, „convergence‟ in global problems is encouraging „divergence‟ in solutions – that is “… homegrown recipes
to alleviate and/or eradicate poverty prove exportable in sometimes surprising ways” (IDS and JRF 2010, p.2).
the next section reviews the evolution and definitions of social protection; policy, institutional and
implementation issues are discussed in sections 3, 4 and 5 respectively. Section 6 illustrates a
typology of context-specific models, while section 7 discusses key conclusions and future directions.

2. Unpacking social protection

The exploration of social protection in scientific publications seems a relatively recent phenomenon.
For instance, between 1800 and 1900 references to social protection in the development literature
were almost inexistent3; the use of the term started to slightly raise from 1900 until 1980, at which
point references boomed by a steep six-fold increase until 2000. The widely documented „adjustment
with a human face‟ literature in the late 1980s and 1990s (World Bank 2000; Jolly 1991) was
followed by a period, the early and mid-2000s, during which many of the modern social protection
policy frameworks were formulated (DFID 2005; Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler 2004; Shepherd
2004; WFP 2004; ADB 2001; World Bank 2001). During that period, the literature flourished and
often revisited the role of social protection under a holistic and forward-looking perspective, as
opposed to its passive and narrow role played in the 1990s (Devereux 2003; Ravallion 2003;
Farrington and Gill 2002; Holzmann and Jorgensen 2001). In was in this context of new demand for
evidence and publication outlets that, for example, the World Bank‟s Social Protection Discussion
Paper Series was lunched, the first wave of impact evaluations of Mexico‟s PROGRESA-
Oportunidades program published, and academic journals devoted special issues to the topic
(Holzmann 2009; Conway and Norton 2002; Hoddinott et al. 2000).
By the mid-2000s, it was clear that social protection was influencing both the humanitarian and
development space (Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler 2007; Longley et al. 2006; Devereux 2006,
2001). Flagship programs like Brazil‟s Bolsa Familia and Ethiopia‟s Productive Safety Net
Programme (PSNP), for example, were indeed launched in 2003 and 2005 respectively (Fiszbein and
Schady 2009; GoE 2009). Over the next years, new research started exploring broader territories,
such as the interactions between social protection and climate change, entrepreneurship and social
justice (Davies et al. 2008; Barrett et al. 2007; Euzeby 2004). Dedicated regional policy research
hubs blossomed, including for example the Centre for Social Protection in Europe, the Regional
Hunger and Vulnerability Programme in Southern Africa, the International Policy Center for
Inclusive Growth in Latin America, the Social Protection in Asia Programme, and the Washington-
based Inter-American Social Protection Network4.

Estimates based on the Google Books Ngram Viewer tool, assembling a corpus of 5 million books spanning 1800-2000:
See, respectively,;;;; and
It was in the wake of global high food prices in 2007-08, however, that social protection became
more widely embedded into high-level agendas (EC and EUI 2010; OECD 2009; AU 2008; CAADP
2008). For example, world leaders called for “…social protection mechanisms such as safety nets
and social policies for the most vulnerable” (G8 Summit 2009, p. 2), pledged significant funding
“…for social protection for the poorest countries” (G20 Summit 2009, p. 8), and committed
themselves to “…support improved social protection programmes in places at risk of malnutrition or
food shortages” (DFID 2009, p. 35). While the causes and effects of the price-induced crisis remains
matter of debate5, at its peak virtually all existing recommendations included, among the most urgent
and cogent priorities, the introduction or expansion of social protection programs (Timmer 2010; UN
2009; HLC 2008; von Braun 2008; World Bank 2008). These measures were eventually
implemented in various countries although, as documented in ex-post reviews, resulting in different
levels of performance (Mousseau 2010; Zhang et al. 2010; Wodon and Zaman 2009). In the current
era of food price volatility, recommendations around social protection are likely to stay relevant and
rank on the top of international responses (Zoellick 2011; Fan 2010).
Yet, while in principle there is consensus on the importance of social protection, its conceptual
boundaries and practical definitions remain open to different interpretations. Indeed, there is a wide
range of approaches on the rationale, scope, objectives and composition of social protection. Such
diversity makes it challenging to develop shared definitions that are both conceptually
comprehensive and technically relevant (Paitoonpong et al. 2008; Devereux and Sabates Wheeler
2007; Whiteford and Forster 2002). However, there a growing number of joint statements and policy
frameworks that attempts to identify common ground, or at least some degree of convergence,
among approaches (IDS et al. 2010; DFID et al. 2009; Sabates-Wheeler and Haddad 2005).
For example, it is widely recognized that safety nets are a subset of broader social protection
systems. The terms safety nets, social safety nets, social transfers or social assistance can be used
interchangeably. They include non-contributory transfers in cash, vouchers or in-kind (mostly food-
based), which can be unconditional or conditional (such as conditional cash transfers (CCTs) and
school feeding), or provided as wages in public or community works (food and cash-for-work6)
(Gentilini and Omamo 2009; Grosh et al., 2008; Adato et al. 2004). Safety nets also include other

Following longstanding issues around the „food price dilemma‟, there is also debate whether high food prices really
caused a crisis or could rather have benefited the poorest countries (e.g. see debate on Dani Rodrik and The Guardian‟s
There is a more subtle debate among practitioners around the trade-offs between the multiple objectives of public work
programs. In some contexts like Ethiopia or India, for example, this tension has generated deeper discussions on “what
constitutes a safety net” – that is, should public works be defined as safety nets when they play an entitlement function
(i.e. public works designed with more emphasis on the provision of transfers/wages as opposed to the quality of assets
built), or should they be incentive or asset-oriented (public works designed with more emphasis on the quality of assets
as opposed to the provision of transfers/wages) (Omamo et al. 2010; Del Ninno et al. 2009; Murgai and Ravallion 2005).
interventions to improve access to food and basic essentials, such as consumer price subsidies
(Alderman 2002).
In addition to safety nets, social protection includes parts of labour market interventions (e.g.
contributory pensions or minimum wages), a set of insurance products, and social services provided
as part of sectoral policies for education, health and nutrition (Bundy et al. 2009; Devereux et al.
2008; Greenblot 2007). These components are mapped out in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Components of social protection

Source: adapted from Gentilini and Omamo (2009)

Weather insurance products represent a common area between safety nets and insurance, especially
when the latter is used to trigger early disaster response and advance financing (Alderman 2010;
Hellmuth et al. 2009). Sectoral policies sometimes overlap with safety nets, as they combine the
supply (social services) and demand-side (incentives, transfers) of interventions – e.g. school feeding
and CCTs. However, the scope and range of labour markets and sectoral policies often go beyond
social protection, including interventions such as microcredit, teacher trainings, constructing health
clinics, and farmer subsidies (e.g. agricultural inputs). Overall, these three broad components of
social protection – transfers, insurance and social services – are often underpinned by a fourth pillar,
including rights and legislation, introduced to empower and enhance the status of the most
disadvantaged and marginalized in societies (e.g. minimum working-days provided by law).
Social protection components can take various forms. As a first-order distinction, it can be provided
publicly or privately. Public measures can be funded domestically (through tax revenues, budget
reallocation and commercial/market lending) or externally (by donors); private mechanisms can be
provided informally (not supported by law or contractual agreements, e.g. community sharing
arrangements), or formally through market transactions (e.g. insurance products). There could also
be combinations of forms, for example when governments are involved in providing market
insurance like in Mexico and Mongolia (Alderman and Haque 2007), when private sector is
contracted to deliver public social services such as in Nicaragua (Glassman et al. 2007), or in
instances when informal support is delivered through formal systems (e.g. money-transfer companies
for remittances). In section 6, we will further discuss how those compositions combine to shape
different social protection models.

3. Policy debates
As illustrated in the previous section, social protection is largely, although not entirely, about public
policy. Since in a number of low-income countries public measures are largely externally-financed,
decision-makers need to define the role of public action and, within it, the role of international aid. In
other words, developing countries need to often face concerns around a „double-dependency‟ –
general dependency on public-financed interventions, and specific concerns on aid dependency. As a
recent OECD policy statement put it, “… [donor] actions in [social protection] must be harmonised
and aligned with national policy, in line with the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and Accra
Agenda for Action” (OECD 2009, p. 15).
This complex policy scenario has led discussion on social protection to intersect, on one hand, with
the “what works agenda” – that is, social protection interventions are increasingly scrutinized
through robust impact evaluations, particularly randomized controlled trials and quasi/non-
experimental methods. While these initiatives has ignited a lively debate on the appropriateness of
individual evaluation methods (Deaton 2009; Ravallion 2009a; Duflo and Kramer 2008; Rodrik
2008), they underscored the importance of informing policy processes through credible evidence.
Such agenda is, on the other hand, somehow independent from the source of financing of the very
public interventions under scrutiny. Hence the relevance for social protection of the “aid
effectiveness agenda” which has, also in this case, generated passionate discussion (Collier 2010;
Clemens 2007; Easterly 2006; Sachs 2006). Concerns on dependency have also motivated
simulations on affordability of basic social protection measures, and a more in-depth examination of
the growth-effects of social protection interventions. These will be further explored hereafter.
Analyses on costs of social protection packages generally conclude that, despite conventional
wisdom, social protection is affordable even in low-income countries. Yet, there are some lingering
issues around sustainability. It seems unclear, for example, how „affordability‟ should be interpreted.
In some cases, the distinction on whether funds will come from domestic budgets or aid allocations is
gloomy; in other cases, any cost that falls within countries‟ GDP capacity – whether GDP shares are
single or double-digit – seems defined as „affordable‟. For example, in introducing the findings from
cross-country simulations, Pal et al. (2005, p.xii) claimed that “… the conclusions therefore are quite
clear. A basic social protection benefit package can be affordable if it is made a priority area of
national policy”. However, the analysis shows that costs for social protection would be highly
sensitive to assumed scenarios, and that for Ethiopia, for example, in 2015 those costs would range
from 9.2 to 44.6 percent of GDP7 (Pal et al. 2005). Therefore, future discussions on sustainability
should further clarify the notion of affordability and more fully account for different modelling
From another perspective, table 1 lists a sample of 10 countries in Southern Africa according to their
redistributive and domestic financing capacity. The former is measured by the marginal tax rate
(MTR) on the rich needed to close the poverty gap at $ 2/day (Ravallion 2009b), while the latter is
embodied by the net Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) as percentage of gross capital
formation (GCF)8.

Table 1. Domestic redistribution and financing capacity, selected countries

Country MTR at $2/day Net ODA as % of GCF
Ethiopia 100 64.7
Kenya 48.2 23.4
Lesotho 100 31.3
Malawi 100 80.6
Mozambique 55.6 109.4
South Africa 23.6 1.8
Swaziland 100 14.3
Tanzania 100 76.4
Uganda 100 49.1
Zambia 100 34.1
Average 82.7 48.5
Source: World Bank WDI online database, latest available data ; Ravallion (2009b).

Among those countries, the average MTR exceeds 80 percent – ranging from 23.6 (South Africa) to
100 in seven of them; conversely, the share of aid in GFC constitutes almost half of countries‟ gross
capital, ranging from 1.8 percent in South Africa to 109.4 percent in Mozambique10. Following
Ravallion (2009b, p. 20), “… while the poorest countries appear to have weak capacity for attacking
poverty through income redistribution – given the sheer weight of poverty and thinness of the rich
strata in their starting distribution – with sufficient economic growth the tax rates on the rich required
for covering the poverty gap start to fall rapidly. So it makes sense for the relative emphasis on
growth versus redistribution, and the reliance on external aid, to change with the level of economic

Indeed, Pal et al (2005, p.x) also recognized that for contexts such as Ethiopia, “… the availability of donor financing
would be essential if internationally set benefit levels are to be met”.
The MTR ranges from 0 to 100, whereas 100 entails that the entire wealth of the rich (or even more, as 100 has been
truncated for simplicity) should be diverted for closing the poverty gap; GCF includes country‟s capital, including
infrastructure such as schools, roads, railways, hospitals and land improvements.
9 (retrieved January 2011).
In countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil, aid as percentage of GCF is less than 1 percent; in
South Africa and Egypt it is less than 5 percent. In countries like Liberia and Burundi, values reach a skyrocketing 742.1
percent and 286.3 percent respectively.
development”. While it is clear that, without growth, there might be limited scope for redistribution
(and that role is de facto played by aid-financed programmes), in situations of post-conflict countries,
for example, it is argued that social protection may reduce the likelihood of future conflicts
(Shepherd 2004), and hence should be promoted before sectoral and macro policies (Collier and
Hoeffler 2004). This may stem from the intrinsic value of signalling commitments to stability and
reconciliation, which may render post-crises environments more conducive for investments and
growth (Darcy 2004).
These considerations speak directly to the dilemma around the sequence of interventions to help
countries unlock poverty traps (Barrett et al. 2008) – or, in a stylized form, what measures countries
would need to prioritize in contexts of binding budgetary and capacity constraints. In those settings,
social protection has to compete with other interventions, hence generating possible tensions between
equity and efficiency, or – as we‟ll further discuss in section 4 – between rights and available
resources (Easterly 2009; Ravallion 2008, 2003; Whiteford 2006; Das et al. 2004; Moffitt 2002). As
the recent Future of Food and Farming report puts it, “… it is important not to view social protection
policies uncritically [since they] can compete with agriculture for political support” (Foresight 2011,
p.26). While the sequence of interventions are seldom confronted explicitly, it is often implicitly
discussed when devising ways to minimize potential trade-offs between equity and efficiency – in
other words, the literature on the growth-social protection relationship (Alderman and Hoddinott
2009; Barrientos and Scott 2008). In this regard, evidence shows that social protection can
potentially promote growth in four core ways.
The first one revolves around the accumulation of human capital. This includes, for example, direct
investments in nutrition. Evidence shows that better nutrition among children may – through the
combined effects of better cognitive development, school attainments and labour productivity – lead
to higher income streams as adults (Behrman et al. 2004). Conversely, the protection of human
capital during times of distress helps maintaining future potential11. For example, in Ethiopia
Yamano et al. (2005) founded that children in drought-affected communities receiving food transfers
grew nearly 2 cm taller than those in non-receiving areas – an important factor, as stunting can be
closely related to earning potential (Strauss and Thomas 1998). Indeed, in Guatemala it is estimated
that nutrition interventions in early childhood led to higher wages in the order of 46 percent as adults
compared to non-recipients (Hoddinott et al. 2008). Similarly, in Zimbabwe lifetime earnings of
children affected by droughts in the 1980s was reduced by nearly 14 percent (Alderman et al. 2006).
A second stream of „growth-friendly‟ social protection is related to the adoption of higher-risk,
higher-income livelihood opportunities. Indeed, in some cases farmers may underperform because of

The „protection‟ function also includes preventing income poverty from further increasing, not only malnutrition. For
example, in Kyrgyzstan it is estimated that the existing social protection system prevented extreme poverty to increase by
24 percent, poverty gaps by 42 percent and the severity of poverty by 57 percent (Shepherd 2004).
overly-conservative farming practices. Social protection could play an important role by
guaranteeing a floor against which more rewarding models could be pursued. For example, in
Tanzania, a shift into low-risk, low-return crops by poorer households resulted in 20 percent lower
incomes per unit of land for households in the lowest quintile compared with the richest quintile
(Alderman and Hoddinott 2009). Most of the recent innovations in insurance and risk-transfer
products are designed to respond to those decision-making quandaries, essentially by exploring the
interconnections between risk, predictability and entrepreneurship (Vargas Hill and Torero 2009;
Barnett et al. 2008).
A third channel relates to the alleviation of some market failures. Examples include the deployment
of labour-intensive schemes to build infrastructures that connect markets, or that protect community
assets in times of covariate shocks; the design of transfers or insurance to liquidity-constrained
households whose needs may not be met by market forces alone (Dercon 2004); and finally, targeted
programs that generate local economic multipliers, hence revitalizing ossified markets (Davies and
Davey 2008).
Finally, social protection feeds into the broader research exploring the interplay between inequality,
poverty reduction and growth (or the „pro-poor growth‟ literature). There is new evidence suggesting
that some trade-offs between inequality and growth may be less pronounced than often perceived12
(Ravallion 2009c). In some countries such as Brazil, for example, evidence shows that redistributive
policies have played a key role in reducing poverty by complementing growth and market-oriented
policies (Ravallion 2009d). In other contexts such as China, however, the role of redistribution in
fostering growth seemed more limited (Dollar 2009; Ravallion 2009e).
Taken together, these streams of research have helped changing the perception of social protection
from being a mere cost to an investment in growth. Yet, there are important limitations and
implications should be drawn cautiously. For example, evidence around the „predictability factor‟ is
still limited13. The focus of safety nets on the demand or access dimension may lead to under-invest
in the supply-side of interventions (e.g. education or social services), and vice-versa (Handa and
Davis 2006). More broadly, if investments in education (also including safety nets such as school
feeding and corresponding social services) are not matched by future job opportunities, there may be
little incentives to keep investing in education (Pritchett 2001). Sustainable growth-effects of safety
nets would likely require long time frames to fully realize (e.g. nutrition and education outcomes),
and such time horizon may conflict with shorter-term priorities of vulnerable households (Barrett
2007). More fundamentally, when social protection is pursuing similar objectives as other

For example, Chaudhuri and Ravallion (2006) differentiate between „good‟ and „bad‟ inequalities for growth, with the
former reflecting the role of economic incentives in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, while the latter include
inequalities that prevent individuals from connecting to markets and investing in physical and human capital – in other
words, they reflect inequality in opportunities.
For example, it is unclear whether more predictability would encourage risk taking or rather foster moral hazard and
unintended dependencies (Barrett 2006).
interventions (e.g. reduce vulnerability of small farmers), there is a need to more fully gauge sectoral
opportunity costs (Foresight 2011). The design of interventions that create incentives for growth in
the longer term and that meet, compatibly with those incentives, short-term needs will likely remain
a crucial policy area in the coming years.

4. Institutional factors
The burgeoning interest in social protection springs from various sources, or „entry-points‟, all of
which entail some form of institutional reform and innovation. Social protection is emerging as a
platform to breaking the cycle of recurrent emergencies, enhancing systems‟ effectiveness and
efficiency, and building constituencies and promoting rights. These recent developments followed
the narrower role that social protection played in 1990s. At that time, social protection initiatives
were part of the „residualist‟ safety net agenda, primarily designed to mitigate adverse effects of
structural adjustment and economic reforms. Examples include programs like Procampo in Mexico,
Raskin in Indonesia, or Trabajar in Argentina (Hastuti 2008; Ravallion 2002; De Janvry et al. 2001).
In terms of more modern perspectives, the first entry point – breaking the cycle of relief – is based on
evidence that large shares of food insecure populations would need long-term assistance, regardless
of the occurrence of covariate shocks. Some chronic needs are therefore „predictable‟, and a
corresponding predictable level of support is required to address needs ex-ante, rather than with ex-
post emergency assistance. Clearly, such a risk management approach offers intriguing opportunities
for cross-fertilizing social protection and disaster risk reduction frameworks (Christoplos 2009;
Davies and Leavy 2009). This has triggered the shift from annual relief programmes to multi-annual
support in the PSNP in Ethiopia and the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) in Kenya (GoE
2009; DFID 2007). Some donors have also set out quantitative targets to this approach. For example,
DFID aims to “… to help build social protection systems to get help to 50 million people in over 20
countries over the next three years14” (DFID 2009, p. 25).
However, preliminary quantitative studies have been cautious about their developmental impacts and
institutional linkages (Gilligan et al. 2009), as well as their ability to respond to emergencies
(Sabates-Wheeler and Devereux 2010; Save the Children, 2008). These gaps are often referred to as
vertical and horizontal institutional linkages: the former concern the organizational chain and the
decentralization of decision-making; the latter refer to the operational arrangements and partnerships
for linking safety nets with other food security interventions – help beneficiaries to „graduate‟ – or
emergency responses (Slater et al. 2006). In some contexts, relief responses are considered to be an
institutional activity that is separate from social protection. The latter is set to include a series of
long-term approaches to address chronic needs (e.g. transfers to the elderly), while emergency

In 2006, DFID‟s stated vision was to “… double to 16 million the number of people moved from emergency relief to
long-term social protection programmes by 2009” (DFID 2006, p.60).
programs is bound to addresses short-term acute needs. Yet, in practice the expansion of social
protection in emergencies could build upon existing temporary programs, while the latter could lay
the basis for longer-term interventions. Future institutional innovations should explore how support
broader sectoral developmental interventions and rapidly-scalable measures in emergencies
(Alderman 2010; Alderman and Haque 2006).
The second entry point for social protection is based on efforts to boost the effectiveness and
efficiency of existing systems. Social protection programmes are being often provided by different
ministries with different lines of responsibility and accountability, resulting in patchwork governance
and management. This may generate duplication of efforts, gaps in coverage and poor institutional
coordination. In other cases, programmes are implemented in isolation and lack a coherent policy
framework. This second entry point therefore aims at „weaving the net‟ and harnessing its full
potential. Activities for weaving the net include mapping, appraising, rationalizing, retargeting and
costing programmes, and the overall streamlining and coordination of processes15. The review and
appraisal of social protection systems have been undertaken both at the regional and country levels
(PNA 2010; Ribe et al. 2010; GoC et al. 2009; UNICEF 2009; GoA 2008; GoM 2007; GoP 2007;
World Bank 2007a,b, 2006; Devereux and Macauslan 2006).
The third entry point leverages social protection for promoting social cohesion and rights-based
agendas (UN 2010; Barrientos and Hulme 2008a; Holmes and Jones 2009; Devereux and Sabates-
Wheeler 2004). The rights movements are often closely related to initiatives for advocating basic
packages of social protection (Townsend 2009). An example is the intergovernmental conference on
social protection held in Livingstone in 2006, with follow-up consultations in 2008. Sponsored by
the African Union and civil society, the events called on African governments to galvanize political
and economic commitment to social protection (AU 2008; AU and HAI 2008; GoZ and AU 2006).
Rights campaigns raise the importance of social protection in national policy agendas, although the
implications from rapidly institutionalizing social protection into national budgets and structures may
deserve further attention. To some extent, limited social protection is seen largely as a lack of
political will. For example, at a social protection workshop in Mozambique it was declared that
“…we [members of Parliament of Angola and Mozambique] reiterate that, with the requisite political
will, social transfers are affordable and that our governments should explore, prioritise and
implement social transfers in their various forms” (SADC Parliamentary Forum and RHVP 2009, p.
2). In the words of Green (2008, p.208), “… instead of treating poor people as „beneficiaries‟, (…)
social protection focuses on the rights and voices of poor people themselves, building an enduring
constituency and demand for state action, and so promoting the combination of active citizens and
effective states that is crucial to development.”

A related field of research is exploring options to enhance social protection within existing capacities, or without
increasing the fiscal space (Holmqvist 2010; Baunsgaard and Symansky 2009).
While broader issues related to sustainability have been discussed in section three, the large share of
aid and influence of external actors have led some authors to question the national ownership of the
social protection agenda16 (Devereux and White 2010; Nigussa and Mberengwa 2009; Chinsinga
2007). Indeed, domestic contributions for highly popular unconditional cash transfer programs, such
as those in Malawi and Zambia, only range from zero to 5 percent of program costs (McCord 2009).
As an evaluation put it, the donor community should “… reconsider the contradictions between two
of its primary objectives – namely its efforts to promote its own vision of social protection on the one
hand, and its efforts to secure government ownership of social protection policies and strategies on
the other” (Davies 2009, p.16).
Therefore, the support, institutionalization and handover of social protection from donors to
governments should be carefully designed. This requires approaches that put a premium on nimble
engagement on policy process.
Once a programme is institutionalized, it becomes more visible and formal. Eligible people can claim
their rights to access to the programme, and governments must be accountable in meeting their
obligations (Devereux et al. 2005). This is a critical step, although it becomes controversial when
bold long-term social protection commitments are institutionalized in low-capacity contexts – the
same that rely heavily on short-term or volatile external support, and have limited possibilities for
domestic financing. Approaches need to more accountable and compatible with prevailing cultural,
social and economic factors that shape countries‟ capacity at each stage of development. As recently
observed by Haddad (2010a), “… country-led opportunities for strengthening social protection in
Africa will not be commonplace. When they arise, the donors must be ready – not to produce their
own solutions but to support the reformers working in the countries they are trying to help”. A
bottom-up, demand-led, evidence-based, sequential and iterative approach to social protection is
likely to be more politically and economically sustainable than any, although well-intended,
ideologically-driven initiative.

5. Implementation quandaries
As discussions descend from institutional to implementation matters, three main areas are often
debated: the use of conditionality, targeting, and transfer selection. These implementation issues,
especially the first two, tend to catalyse significant shares of debate around social protection. In some
cases, they even overshadow deeper policy and institutional issues, with discussions being dominated
by narrow considerations on how to deliver a given transfer for some groups of people.

This may also include a longstanding concern by communities over „top-down‟ approaches to social protection, and
how systems can be influenced and strengthened from the „bottom-up‟ (Nigussa and Mberengwa 2009; Mgemezulu
2008; Morduch and Sharma 2002).
The debate around conditinalities unfolds at three levels – philosophical, technical and empirical.
Experiences with CCTs in Latin America have emphasized the importance of an integrated approach
to poverty, health, education and nutrition (Adato and Hoddinott 2010; Fiszbein and Shady 2009). A
CCT program requires beneficiaries to perform some activities – e.g. ensure children attendance of
school and medical visits – in exchange of a cash transfer. School feeding, including both on-site
feeding and take-home rations programs, also represents a form of „conditional food transfer‟, as it
requires school attendance to receive food (Bundy et al. 2009). According to some actors,
conditionality represents an imposition on beneficiaries (Freeland 2007), and that they may even
result disempowered (Molyneux 2009). Other actors suggest that conditional transfers do not force
people to change behaviours, but rather promote co-responsibility between governments and
citizens17 (Adato and Bassett 2008). In parallel to these philosophical divergences, studies have been
appraising the feasibility of introducing and maintaining CCT programs, suggesting that the
administrative and operational requirements are often a significant challenge in lower-capacity
settings (Heinrich 2007; Soares and Britto 2007; Schubert and Slater 2006). A growing number of
empirical studies are also investigating the comparative impacts of conditional and unconditional
transfers – in other words, how much of the outcomes are attributable to the complementary services
or the transfers per se. The evidence seems mixed, with experimental studies detecting a statistically
significant difference in favour of CCTs (De Brauw and Hoddinott 2011), while others have found
similar impacts between treatment arms (Baird et al. 2009). In general, discussions around CCTs
embody many of the considerations laid out for trade-offs between equity and efficiency. Indeed, as
underscored by Das et al. (2005), design choices around conditionality, the amount of transfers
provided, and the refinement and enforcement of eligibility criteria would all play a role in
addressing those trade-offs. The latter element – eligibility – is closely related to targeting, the next
area of programming controversy.
One of the most passionate areas of discussion around targeting is whether to target at all. Indeed,
targeting is often closely linked to rights-related approaches (section 4), especially as they propose
universal minimum incomes, or the right to basic social protection packages (Townsend 2009). From
other standpoints, targeting is deemed instrumental for maximizing programme effectiveness-
efficiency ratios, and minimizing leakages. A number of targeting methods have been developed –
e.g. means-testing, categorical, geographical, community-based, self-targeting – with comparative
advantages and limitations in various contexts and programs. However, the distinction between
vulnerability profiles, or between chronic and transitory poverty, becomes particularly blurred in
contexts of persistent poverty – e.g. countries like Mozambique or Niger where more than 90 percent
of the population lives on less than U$2/day (World Bank 2010). This is particularly compelling for

There are also approaches adopting „soft‟ conditionalities. These are based on initiatives to induce behavioural change,
but which do not envision program exclusion as a penalty for non-compliance.
initiatives that envision predetermined rigid thresholds for program eligibility and enrolment – such
as the „poorest 10 percent‟ – like the cash transfer programs in Malawi and Zambia (Schubert and
Huijbregts 2006; Schubert 2005). While these schemes have grown in popularity, they have also
stimulated severe criticism on their targeting methods (RHVP 2008). It is important to strike a
balance between ensuring that benefits reach vulnerable populations, and avoiding artificial
boundaries among and within almost equally vulnerable communities (Ellis 2008; Mgemezulu
The third social protection implementation quandary revolves around transfer selection – hence
particularly pertinent for safety nets – as exemplified by the „cash versus food‟ debate. While the
discussion is longstanding (Coate 1989), Devereux (2006, p. 11) noted that “…the „cash versus food‟
debate has become unnecessarily polarised, even acrimonious. It is also spurious and misdirected”.
However, the increase in practical implementation and empirical attention has shed light on the
underlying conditions for guiding transfer selection processes. It is now widely recognized, for
example, that the choice of the most appropriate transfer hinges on proper assessment of context-
specific factors. These include programme objectives, the functioning of markets, implementation
capacities, delivery mechanisms, security conditions, cost-efficiency analysis, and beneficiaries‟
preferences (Gentilini 2007). The application, in particular, of cutting-edge technology for cash and
voucher delivery (e.g. smart cards, mobile phones) is receiving considerable attention (Vincent and
Cull 2011; Barca et al. 2010). Such options offer expanded scope for enhancing program design and
forging public-private partnerships. Yet, while attractive and „smart‟, the choice of technology
shouldn‟t substitute for response analysis and decision-making processes, out of which they only
represent a specific component (Omamo et al. 2010; Barrett et al. 2009).
Overall, while experience with cash-based programs in low-income countries is growing, a number
of evidence gaps remain. This stems not only from the general features of the initiatives (small-scale,
short-term and donor-financed) (Davies 2009; Save the Children 2009; Devereux and Coll-Black
2007), but also from the effectiveness in pursuing specific outcomes, such as child malnutrition, that
are widely documented in higher-capacity contexts18 (Leroy et al. 2009; Fernald et al. 2008; Aguero
et al. 2007). The appropriateness of cash-based responses in the immediate aftermath of emergencies
remains matter of discussion19 (Sabates-Wheeler and Devereux 2010; Save the Children 2008;
Harvey and Savage 2006), and so is the debate around what constitutes an „acceptable level‟ of
evidence to inform the scale-up of programs (Miller 2009).
Evidence in low-capacity contexts tends to be qualitative and descriptive, with few experimental or quasi-experimental
trials to explore for causal effects; Sharma (2006) is one of the few exceptions. However, also food-based interventions
require more robust evaluations. Also in this case, Adelman et al. (2008) and Kazianga et al. (2009) are among the few
experimental studies available. In general, there is a need for further robust cash and food comparative studies, such as
the one by Ahmed et al. (2009), while more evidence on voucher and combined cash and food-based programs is also
In those contexts, practitioners have to navigate various trade-offs and competing demands between rigour and
flexibility, timeliness and documentation, and scale and control (Gentilini et al. 2011).
6. Emerging models
Taken together, the various components and forms of social protection, as well as the set of policy,
institutional and implementation issues, delineate a number of possible models of social protection.
As mentioned in section 1, not only various middle-income countries are emerging as beacons of
R&D in social protection, but also a number of low-income countries are positioning themselves as
proactive social protection players. Yet, the genuine process of experimenting, learning and adapting
practices seems sometimes substituted by a process of replication of predefined approaches. While
sharing lessons from different countries is key to innovate and advance knowledge and practice, it
would be important to identify the extent to which lessons would be relevant elsewhere – the
„portability‟ of social protection (Haddad 2010b) – and how to best suit them to contexts.
Drawing from existing literature, tools20, data and case studies, it‟d be useful to set out a typology of
social protection models, including „limited‟, „emerging‟ and „consolidated‟ social protection
systems (Gentilini 2009; Gentilini and Omamo 2009; Ravallion 2009b; Barrientos and Hulme 2008b;
Grosh et al. 2008; Shepherd 2004). While those models present differing array of objectives,
administrative, financing and political factors, innovations are emerging across the board. Figure 2
illustrates those models as shaped by the level of integration and coordination, financing source,
redistribution capacity, and the balance of safety nets (non-contributory) versus insurance
(contributory) instruments.

Figure 2. An illustrative typology of social protection models

Integration & coordination

(legislation, labor markets, ministries)
Low High



Emerging capacity (MTR)



Low High
Ratio = Insurance/safety nets

Tools to appraise countries‟ social protection capacities include, inter alia, the World Bank‟s Automated Analysis of
the Distributional Impact of Social Protection Programmes (ADePT-SP), and ILO‟s Social Protection Expenditure and
Performance Reviews (SPERs).
The boundaries of the clusters are often fluid, and the typology does not imply a predefined linear
pathway for introducing or expanding social protection. Rather, it broadly illustrates different
configurations based on prevailing conditions, while detailed exploration of the dynamics and
causality of countries‟ pathways may be an area of further research. Our static model, instead, is
particularly useful to frame debates and highlight contextual challenges.
Countries with „consolidated‟ systems primarily include OECD and advanced economies, where
social protection is institutionalized in national domestic budgets, structures, fiscal and expenditure
regimes, and overall political processes. Social security, equity and welfare are among the key
objectives that shape the social contract between the state and citizens (Dethier 2009; OECD 2008,
2007; De Neubourg et al. 2007; Lindert 2005; Alesina and Glaeser 2004). Systems are primarily
insurance-based, linked to formal labour markets, delivered through electronic and digital solutions,
and financed domestically. Yet, there are also non-contributory safety net programs. For instance, in
the United States about 10 percent of the population benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (SNAP). With a budget of about US$37.5 billion/year, SNAP is the largest
voucher-based safety net in the world (USDA 2007).
Countries with „emerging‟ systems are those where social protection has begun to be
institutionalized. These include most of South-East Asian, Middle-East and Latin American
countries. However, there are wide differences in such model. Some countries may lay at the
intersection between emerging and limited systems (e.g. Ecuador, Nicaragua), while others may
present features common in countries with consolidates systems (e.g. China, Turkey). In these
contexts, international assistance has a limited role, and systems are largely domestically funded.
Basic social protection is sometimes mandated by law, such as in India (SCCI 2008); safety nets are
mainly cash-based or, like in most countries in the Middle-East, government-subsidized; formal
contributory pensions are expanding, and both the public and private sectors offer market insurance
products (Kabeer et al. 2010; WFP 2010, 2009; Alderman and Haque 2007; Gilligan and Ahmed
2007; Regalia and Castro 2007; Lindert et al. 2006). However, there is scope for significant
improvements of these systems‟ coordination, coverage, effectiveness and efficiency (Ribe et al.
2010; Gao et al. 2009; Baulch et al. 2006; Giambiagi and de Mello 2006; Sumarto et al. 2003).
Finally, countries with „limited‟ systems includes contexts with high needs (poverty, food insecurity
and/or malnutrition rates) combined with limited fiscal space and redistribution capacity – e.g.
countries with high MTR and aid shares presented in table 1. Under this model, two core sub-clusters
can be identified. On one hand, there are post-conflict and fragile states, where most social protection
is provided through donor-funded safety nets, often in the form of large humanitarian responses to
recurrent emergencies. Examples include Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Haiti and Afghanistan (FAO
2010; Harvey 2009; Save the Children et al. 2009; GoA 2008, 2002). On the other hand, there are
countries that are laying the basis for longer-term social protection systems. Examples include
Ethiopia (PSNP), Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya (HSNP), Cambodia and Bangladesh. While informal
social protection still plays an important role, markets may allow a wider use of cash-based safety
nets, and some insurance products might also appear (Maxwell et al. 2010; GoC 2009; UNICEF
2008; GoM 2007; World Bank 2006; WFP 2005; Morduch and Sharma 2002). However, domestic
funding of social protection is very limited compared to external financing (Ellis et al. 2009; McCord
Taken together, these considerations suggest that there are deep differences between an integrated
„system‟ of social protection and a „collection of programs‟ (World Bank 2011; Kanbur 2009). While
many developing countries have a number of individual social protection instruments in place, the
low level of coordination, integration, financing and redistributive capacity may limit their ability to
establish a system per se.

7. Conclusions and future directions

The paper reviewed the growing literature on social protection. In particular, we navigated the
different approached underpinning the concept, and identified some common elements to define the
composition and forms of social protection. We explored the old and new streams of research that
conflated into the debate, laid out key policy, institutional and implementation quandaries, and
overlaid those factors to illustrate different models of social protection. Overall, four broad
interconnected issues and challenges emerge from our analysis. Taken together, these considerations
may help shape future directions for social protection research and practice.

Context matters. All countries have social protection measures in place. However, the objectives,
composition, forms, scale and funding modalities vary dramatically. This diversity has generated
different typologies of social protection, which call for context-specific approaches as shaped by
prevailing administrative, institutional and implementation issues. In particular, more attention
should be paid to the challenges faced by crisis-prone, low-income and food insecure countries21.
Cross-country lessons and support could help inform how to introduce or expand politically and
financially-sustainable systems consistently with countries‟ prevailing conditions. This would
include a comprehensive approach to social protection – that is, promoting a fuller consideration of
the range of policy and institutional issues here discussed, rather than primarily focusing on
implementation mechanics or rights alone.

Systems, not programs. The process of moving from a collection of programs to an institutionalized
system entails addressing key trade-offs along the policy, institutional and implementation spectrum.
This includes navigating choices around short and longer-run interventions; productivity and equity;

As part of such process, there is a need to further investigate factors shaping countries‟ social protection pathways, as
well as developing new ways to measure and quantify countries‟ capacity to provide social protection.
domestic and external support; or rights and affordability. Some of the trade-offs may be mitigated,
while others may be more difficult to reconcile. Confronting these competing priorities requires a
pragmatic approach to social protection, as opposed to ideology-driven debates that often ignore or
oversimplify key trade-offs. To this effect, social protection platforms should not be developed in
isolation, but rather be part of broader consultations to inform decision-making on investment
priorities alongside other sectors. This would also help better nesting social protection within
developmental initiatives, as well as strengthening the institutional linkages for scaling-up in
emergencies. In order to be politically and financially sustainable – in order to build a system – the
gradual establishment of social protection systems should be an integral part of countries‟
comprehensive development vision.

Advance evidence-based agendas to inform decision-making. In general, more systematic and robust
comparative social protection evaluations are needed, including a wider use of randomized controlled
trials and other evaluation methods as appropriate22. These initiatives should be part of a coherent
research framework23 to inform decision makers about performance (impacts and costs) of social
protection interventions. This includes validating alternative safety net transfers, as well as
comparing them to insurance and social services, and gauge opportunity costs from other
productivity-enhancing interventions. The research agenda should be multidisciplinary, including
drawing from economics, sociology and psychology; driven by program objectives or outcomes (e.g.
looking for best interventions to improve well defined dimensions such as nutrition or education);
articulated by context, and elaborating, for example, from the models here illustrated; testing how
program design – e.g. conditionality, transfer modality, delivery mechanisms, distribution frequency
– influence program outcomes; and capturing both short and longer-term effects (e.g. effects risk-
taking, impacts of food markets, or labour supply). The research agenda should be complemented by
mechanisms to ensure accountable and transparent translation of credible body evidence into

Repositioning social protection in a changing world. Globalization is not limited to high and middle-
income countries, and social protection policies in all countries should recognize the world‟s
growing interconnectedness. In low-income countries, this includes accounting more explicitly for
the changing nature of food systems, growing urbanization, the exponential diffusion of technology,
volatile food prices, rapid capital flows and more mobile labour markets. Those developments should

The combination of methods would ensure that issues around both internal and external validity are addressed.
As noted by Hayek (1973, p.60), “… an experiment can tell us only whether any innovation does or does not fit into a
given framework. But to hope that we can build a coherent order by random experimentation with particular solutions of
individual problems and without following guiding principles is an illusion”.
For example, pilots could explore the application to social protection of new aid models such as „pay-for-performance‟
and „cash-on-delivery aid‟, both underpinned by principles of transparency, co-responsibility and feedback mechanisms
(Basinga et al. 2010; Birsdall and Savedoff 2010).
alert and inspire governments on how to modernize social protection systems in an era of
globalization. For example, the growing disconnect between international food prices and „real‟ food
demand-supply dynamics (i.e. food prices being increasingly detached from agriculture and wrapped
into commodity markets), there may be scope for governments to further consider virtual food
reserves as part of the measures to provide countercyclical safety nets25. New initiatives that connect,
harness and realigns incentives of civil society, private sector and public institutions may offer fresh
perspectives and uncharted opportunities for repositioning social protection to meet 21st Century-

The high volatility in food prices suggests that the time to setup responses to protect food insecure consumers/net
importing countries is tight (and so is for farmers/net-food exporting countries to seize opportunities). So as food prices‟
upward acceleration increase, governments need quicker action planned ex-ante. In this regard, further studies may
explore the feasibility for government to engage, in some way, in commodity markets themselves (e.g. buying shares in
times of low prices) and in managing virtual food reserves throughout. The latter would become „real‟ or monetized in
times of need (von Braun and Torero 2009). In other words, in addition to traditional safety net responses, governments
may find it effective to tap virtual reserves to cushion price-generated crises.
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