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Solomon Asfaw
PhD, Economist, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Italy, 19-03-2015

Social protection programmes to improve food security and rural poverty in developing countries

A large proportion of the poor households in rural areas of the developing world rely primarily on agriculture and they are often exposed to frequent risks that threaten their livelihoods. In the absence of risk sharing arrangements, poor families may be forced to cope with shocks in ways that further increase their vulnerability and undermine their future income generation capacity. In such circumstance social protection programmes in combination with other agricultural development strategies are crucial in promoting overall social and economic development and breaking the cycle of rural poverty.

Many developing countries are successfully implementing large-scale social protection programmes that help the poor and vulnerable. For instance, over the last decade, a growing number of African governments have launched social protection programmes to provide assistance to the elderly and to households that are ultra-poor, labour-constrained, and/or caring for orphans and vulnerable children. The main types of social protection instruments used in these countries include cash transfers, workfare and public works programmes and in-kind safety nets. Cash transfer programmes in African countries have tended to be unconditional (where regular and predictable transfers of money are given directly to beneficiary households without conditions or labour requirements) rather than conditional (more common in Latin America), which require recipients to meet certain conditions, such as using basic health services or sending their children to school. The objectives of most of these programmes focus on food security, health, nutritional and educational status, particularly of children, and so as would be expected, the accompanying impact evaluations concentrate on measuring these dimensions of programme impact.

There is robust empirical evidence from numerous countries (especially Latin America and, increasingly, sub-Saharan Africa) that social protection such as cash transfer can play fundamental role in many areas. Beyond ensuring basic survival through providing direct income support with immediate impact on food security and poverty reduction, social protection can build resilience as it helps rural households manage risks and cope with shocks and disasters. It may prevent them from having to sell off valuable productive assets or take children from school during situations of stress. Similarly, by alleviating liquidity constraints and reducing income uncertainty, social protection interventions may facilitate productive investment by the poor and thus promote inclusive economic growth. Social protection programmes can further strengthen local economic development as it puts more money in the hands of people who spend locally and as well support efforts towards more sustainable management of natural resources.

These positive effects do not emerge automatically. Social protection programmes need to be effectively designed for different contexts and should not be considered as panacea for poverty reduction. Successful policies and programmes require careful design that takes into consideration the institutional, administrative, infrastructure and financial capacity of the country. Political commitment at the highest level is a necessary condition for successful national social protection initiatives to reduce hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. Political commitment is strengthened and sustained when there is widespread social participation giving voice to the poor and vulnerable. Strong political leadership, as seen in Brazil, is essential for building coalitions and strong policy commitment.

To be sustainable, social protection instruments must target effectively, avoid creating dependency and help households accumulate assets to build sustainable livelihoods. Social protection programmes will only be able to achieve their objectives if they manage to reach their target population. Policy coherence between social protection and agricultural interventions can maximize household and local development impacts and reduce the potential trade-offs with regard to incentives and protection. The roles of gender empowerment, social inclusiveness and governance are integral aspects to successfully implementing social protection for growth and resilience.

Dutch development policy should take into account social protection as a potentially important part of a strategy in its international development support to increase sustainable, poverty-reducing growth. Beyond direct financial support for social protection country programmes, it’s also vital to provide technical and policy advice support as well as invest in policy oriented research to generate evidence on the role of social protection and potential trade-off.

The views expressed in this information product are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of FAO.


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