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The fight against social exclusion: is there a role for social protection?

Written by Jessica Hagen-Zanker

There’s no doubt that stark social inequalities permeate the economic and social fabric of many societies. Individuals from marginalised groups don’t have access to the same resources as others; they lack the opportunities to be productive members of society; they don’t have access to services such as health and education. In addition, they often have limited influence on decision-making in their communities and are not able to demand accountability from their governments.

High levels of social exclusion present policy makers with a complex reality, with socially excluded individuals and groups often facing multiple deprivations and higher levels of poverty that are caused by a wider array of factors. So, as an increasingly important policy tool for addressing poverty - is there a role for social protection to play? Arguably, social protection programmes have a social mandate and should strive to reach out to the most marginalised.

Policy-makers seem to think so too:

  • The Government of Bangladesh’s most recent national Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper 2011-2015 claims ‘social protection strategies underlying the Plan will place particular emphasis on gender and social inclusion aspects of development’.
  • Donors have been promoting the transformative role that social protection should play in supporting equity, empowerment and social justice, see the European Report on Development and OECD papers

However, while many people assume social protection can contribute to tackling inequality and marginalisation, yet there is little evidence to say it does. ODI set out to answer this – and found that actually social protection can play a positive role, but in order to achieve greater inclusion, social protection programmes must be carefully designed and adequately implemented, and in some instances -be linked with policies and programmes in other sectors.

We do see some positive impacts…

Our research – based on five different social protection interventions - found that social protection can tackle some of the effects of social exclusion. For instance, our Bangladesh study showed that CLP – an intervention that transfer assets to beneficiaries - has improved women’s livelihoods and economic opportunities within culturally acceptable boundaries. Beneficiary women reported being less reliant on daily wage labour and have instead been able to increase investment into small-scale, but diversified agricultural activities. In India, we saw that socially excluded households, such as Scheduled Caste and Muslim households, of the RSBY health-insuranceprogramme are now spending less on in-patient treatment – this is important as spending on health can be a major cause of households entering into deeper poverty. In Afghanistan girls participating in a skills training programme showed improved knowledge on health issues, literacy and rights awareness and mostly better social relations. For instance, one girl explained the impact of the training as follows: “The Education Module was important for me; I learned how to read and write. Now I am very happy and I am teaching my small sister reading and writing.

… but there may be limits to what it can achieve

That said, the social protection programmes in our study are less effective at tackling the drivers of social exclusion. In some cases, programmes have managed to make it easier for people to interact with others in their communities, for instance by walking to the pay point together to pick up the transfer or by giving beneficiary households a bit more money, which can be spent on food and clothes for religious or social celebrations. But they did not change the underlying social and gender relations, for instance deeply-engrained discrimination against people from certain castes or ethnic groups, and other structural factors, such as a weak governance environment, that affect people’s access to financial and social resources. This is because the programmes were not necessarily designed s to address these challenges. It is also fair to say that these challenges are often so massive that you can’t expect any single programme to single-handedly tackle them. In the words of one beneficiary of the RSBY health insurance programme in India, “We have been facing discrimination for a long time. How can access to health care through RSBY abolish caste based discrimination against us and provide equality to us?

What can we do to promote greater change?

What CAN be done? Well, programmes definitely should set clear goals, dedicate resources and forge cross-sectoral partnerships to tackle social exclusion. Here are five ways policy makers could help to make social protection programmes more effective at tackling social exclusion:

  1. Understand why people don’t have access to resources and institutions – only then can programmes be designed to be appropriate and effective.
  2. Consider all the nitty-gritty details and get the institutional design of programmes right – poorly designed and implemented programmes have even less impact.
  3. Dedicate sufficient resources and ensure there is capacity to deliver services and support monitoring and accountability.
  4. Foster institutional links to other programmes and sectors (e.g. health, education) – these can help social protection programmes achieve their objectives.
  5. And finally - manage expectations about the impacts social protection can have. This is especially important where there are existing resource or capacity constraints and structural bottlenecks, such as poor governance. For example, a transfer that buys less than a chicken per month is not going to change food security in the bigger scheme of things.

With governments and development institutions increasingly and explicitly recognising the importance of tackling social exclusion, social protection can play a role. But to be able to do this, programmes would benefit from being carefully designed and better integrated with other policies and sectors.