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Social protection in Africa

Time (GMT +00) 12:30 14:00


Professor Frank Ellis - University of East Anglia


Anna McCord - Research Fellow, ODI


Rachel Slater - Research Fellow, ODI

Rachel Slater introduced the panel, Frank Ellis (Professor, School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia) and Philip White (Research Fellow, School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia), who are two of the book’s co-authors and would be introducing the context of the book. She also introduced the discussant Anna McCord (Research Fellow, Social Protection Programme, Overseas Development Institute), who would highlight the key contribution of the book to our understanding of social protection options and emerging challenges for the future.  

After thanking the audience for their attendance, Frank Ellis, described the evolution of the book as a key output of the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme.  The conclusions and findings described in detail in the book have emerged from research carried out mainly in Southern Africa where the DFID-funded programme is based.

Frank began by discussing the concern regarding food security in Southern Africa in the 2000s. At the time food insecurity was attributed to several different causes including civil conflict and drought among others.  However, there were increasing concerns that even a small interruption in the seasonal weather had resulted in disproportionate hardship and hunger. These concerns resulted in a shift in discussion towards chronic extreme vulnerability. Whilst emergency calls for action often lead to food aid, calls for action often come from outside the region where food insecurity is a concern, and involve high monetary and logistical costs. The result is that food aid often arrives too late to help people, including children. These parallel concerns about the efficiency of food aid appeals, and about growing chronic vulnerability drove the need to rethink the orthodox response to tackling hunger.

Policy ideas began to change.  In Southern Africa in 2001/2, the emergency response was poorly addressed and questions were raised over whether or not it would be better to provide vulnerable families with assistance on a regular monthly basis – ‘predictable funding for predictable needs.’

Frank how, in Ethiopia, 7 to 8 million people every year require emergency food security. Rather than waiting for a particular interval to turn to the international community for ad hoc support, it was increasingly argued that hunger could be better dealt via support on a continual basis.  Continual support is seen to be less expensive than utilising emergency action.

Touching on the case of Ethiopia, Philip White described the political economy of food aid and donor attitudes and suggested that there were two critical questions regarding responses to hunger: cost and discretion.  He argued that by reliance on ad-hoc emergency food aid left support to poor people at the discretion of the government and donors that provide this aid.

Philip described the work of RHVP, established in 2005 and now entering its second phase.  The book therefore discusses work arising during the first phase. RHVP is a DFID-funded programme  - one of a series of responses by DFID to vulnerability in Southern Africa.  Philip described the three main components of the programme: policy influencing; evidence gathering, and capacity building, and the focus countries of the first phase of the programme: Lesotho; Mozambique; Malawi; Swaziland; Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

As part of the evidence gathering activities, the research team undertook an inventory (which included consultations) of Social Protection initiatives in the countries. Research had shown that there had been a wide variety of NGO-lead/donor-funded initiatives within the last few years. The RHVP research team then commissioned local research institutions to undertake more detailed research – with the RHVP research team providing a mentoring role and also providing a synthesis of results at the end.

Twenty case studies were investigated (15 of which are discussed in the book) across seven themes: vulnerability; targeting; delivery; coordination and coverage; cost-effectiveness; market effects, and asset impacts.The structure of the book maintains a continuous interaction between the seven themes and fifteen case studies, whilst taking a critical view of the strengths and weaknesses of the case studies.

The book is firmly rooted in the practicalities of delivering Social Protection and is a reference tool rather than an academic piece. Best practice principles that those designing and implementing social protection in Africa should aim towards are detailed in the book.

Frank highlighted several broader conclusions discussed in the book:

·         Categorical targeting has significant advantages over various poverty and vulnerability targeting methods.

·         Cash transfers have many strengths but some serious weaknesses, particularly in the event of unforeseen fluctuations in staple food prices.  The level of cash transfer is unlikely to change, even in the event of higher food prices, meaning cash transfers may not be worth as much as they did before.

·         There are now various electronic methods of delivering cash transfers to recipients.

·         Some case studies showed greater political support for Social Protection instruments, having been passed through legislation. 

Frank highlighted three main areas of debate:

·         Cash versus food transfers

·         Conditional versus unconditional transfers, and

·         Categorical versus poverty targeting

Frank finally confirmed that there is an emerging consensus in favour of cash transfers that are un-conditional and targeted through categorical targeting. However, he finished by saying that by no means is this resolved.

In her review of the book Anna McCord described Social Protection in Africa as an excellent book – one that is practical and very accessible. She confirms that it is not an academic publication, rather a reference resource - for which there has been a gap in the market.  Anna noted that it provides critical insights in to the Social Protection debate and the challenges of Social Protection for governments and donors.

Anna highlighted three headline issues covered in the book:

·         If you want to address vulnerability, then short and medium term approaches are unlikely to meet outcomes.

·         Targeting: the book suggests that the main issue is with exclusion errors (including scale and coverage) therefore, the main concern should not be inclusion errors.  People are advised to rethink the question of targeting.

·         Commitment: the book highlights that there is a need for budgetary commitment to Social Protection.  This commitment must be national, unwritten by legislation and permanent. Current funding of Social Protection is one of the less developed aspects in the book.

Anna also noted recognition in the book that there are extremely few examples of large-scale Social Protection programmes in Southern Africa such as Kenya Hunger Safety Net Programme; Ethiopia Productive Safety Net Programme; Ghana Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty. Anna recognised that these examples do not have the characteristics identified as critical.

Anna then went on to discuss critical insights implied in book, which she felt had not been significantly drawn out:

·         Targeting: there are often marginal differences between targeted and non-targeted households, meaning that targeting poorest on the basis of a % of population, although easy to apply, can result in those who receive support being significantly elevated above those who do not, which is inequitable.

·         Asset transfers can promote livelihoods and graduation however this is not realistic as depends on the value and period of transfers, and raises assumptions of graduation rather than seeing it as a process.

·         Cost of Social Protection: it is difficult to see what the cost is or to make any comparisons.

·         Many evaluation assessments cease once the transfer has been made. There is very little government or donor interest in looking at the long-term impact of the transfer.

·         Accountability: there is a problem with downward accountability or upward accountability of tax payers in developed and developing countries.

·         Cost-effectiveness implications, particularly in the event of constrained donor budgets.

Anna referred to several ideas which are omitted (albeit perhaps deliberately) from the book: Accountability and feedback: this is not prominent in Social Protection; Risk and liability implications of large scale programme; Donor response and commitment; Affordability, and fiscal trade-offs (which requires more work to be undertaken on how money can be most appropriately spent.)


Comments and questions raised in the discussion included:

·         Community monitoring of Social Protection programmes – what can be learnt from existing practice?

·         Lack of civil society voice in demanding benefits.

·         Political will, such as the commitment to pensions in Lesotho and Swaziland. Are there standards which can be referred to?

·         Are there any impacts for food security?

·         Are there mechanisms for scaling-down programmes?

·         Several African governments have recently shown their commitment to a minimum package of Social Protection from next year. How can the international community help governments meet these obligations in a time of financial uncertainty?

·         Further implications of population growth, are programmes sustainable?

·         Implications of volatile food prices on cash transfers, are there any conclusions?

·         Is there analysis of the risk reduction perspective in the book? 


As climate change, food and fuel price volatility and growing global financial crisis all threaten progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, there are increasing calls for new and expanded social protection programmes in low income countries.  It is in this context that Social Protection in Africa, by Frank Ellis, Stephen Devereux and Philip White, provides a timely and comprehensive account of the ideas, principles and practicalities of establishing effective social protection in Africa.  As African governments and their development partners grapple with the challenge of establishing new social protection programmes, the book provides a positive, constructive and forward looking perspective on the feasibility of achieving successful social transfers to the poorest in Africa.

At the launch of Social Protection in Africa, Professor Frank Ellis will present an overview of the content of the book.  He will describe a major strategic shift in ways to tackle hunger and vulnerability: from emergency responses, mainly in the form of food transfers, to predictable cash transfers to the chronically poorest social groups.