INCLUDE Platform

The business case for social protection in Sub-Saharan Africa1

Social protection plays multiple roles in achieving inclusive development in Sub Saharan Africa. However, national governments are often reluctant to introduce comprehensive social protection programmes as these require a reallocation of resources and are often considered as too expensive. There is a need for evidence-based arguments to convince policy-makers that investing scarce resources in social protection programmes is a cost-effective exercise in the long-run because of the impact they have on poverty reduction and social mobility.

Inclusive development – here defined as a pattern and pace of development in which the poor and most vulnerable groups participate and which is characterised by income growth  as well as decreasing inequality in both income and non-income dimensions of wellbeing – is high on the agenda of Sub Saharan African governments. The building blocks for inclusive development are  economic transformation, productive employment creation and social protection. Social protection is not only a powerful tool to alleviate monetary poverty but is also widely recognized as an important policy tool to address economic, social and political exclusion and vulnerability.2 It is linked to inclusive development through various transmission channels, such as a reduction of inequality, labour participation, productive assets protection and accumulation, human capital development, strengthening of social and collective citizenship rights, institutions and (local) economic multiplier effects. Although some African countries, such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda have comprehensive social protection systems on the drawing board, elsewhere and even at the same time there seems to be a reluctance on the part of national political elites to implement social protection schemes. 3

The point of departure for INCLUDE is that one way to trigger commitment for social protection interventions among political elites in SSA is to provide them with evidence-based knowledge about the anticipated effects of  these interventions on inclusive development. Case studies on the transmission channels are needed to effectively integrate inclusive development objectives  in the design, implementation and evaluation of social protection interventions in the seven SSA partner countries.4

A research agenda on social protection

Although there is a growing body of research evaluating the impact of social protection, this type of research mostly considers short term impact, for example by considering the effect on household production, income or access to education, and seldom includes the value for money question. There is a major gap in addressing the basic investment case question: are the costs of social protection interventions justified by the long-term impact on inclusive development? Hence, more research is needed on the exact context-specific effects of different social protection interventions. Such a research focus poses a methodological challenge as the effects of social protection policies generally occur through various intermediary factors, like the accumulation of human capital, investment in, protection and accumulation of productive assets, and labour participation. In addition, the effects of social protection take place at different levels. At the household level, social protection enables people to manage risks and to invest in human capital and productive assets. For the community as a whole, social protection interventions have the potential to create local multiplier effects and to contribute to asset development. At the national level, social protection interventions can stimulate aggregate demand, contribute to social cohesion and enable development enhancing policy reforms. Research on how and under what conditions these effects are generated is crucial in order to grasp more fully the cost-effectiveness of these measures.

The scope of social protection interventions

Social protection interventions have various functions and can come in various forms. According to the Institute of Development Studies, social protection instruments constitute the formal and informal initiatives that provide income or in-kind transfers to poor and vulnerable people or households in order to: 1) provide a safety net that protects them against certain risks (preventive function), 2) protect them against income shortfall or poverty after being confronted with contingencies like illness, job loss, or economic crisis (protective function), 3) increase their economic opportunities and possibilities to climb up the social ladder (promotive function), and 4) more structurally support social justice for more equitable outcomes for all (transformative function).5 A single intervention can cover one or more of these functions. A direct cash-transfer to a poor household is protective, but if it is regular and provided over a longer term, it also increases the resilience of this household against certain risks. If the transfer is conditional to certain behavioural requirements, such as school attendance for children, it also functions as a promotive instrument with potential long term effects. The transformative function is achieved when the right to the transfer is, for example, enshrined in national legislation.

There are different social protection instruments to reach these purposes.6 The International Labour Organization (ILO) distinguishes social protection into three categories: 1) social assistance, 2) social insurance, and 3) labour market regulation.7 Social assistance comprises tax-financed cash transfers granted to specific targeted groups in society in order to protect them against poverty and increase their economic opportunities and social mobility. Often these transfers are targeted at people working in the informal sector, as these workers are usually excluded from work-related protection mechanisms, like social insurance and labour market interventions. Social insurance includes contributory programmes covering work-related contingencies, like illness, injury and dismission, in order to protect workers from income-fall. An important difference with social assistance measures is that social insurance measures are paid for by employer and employee, rather than from tax revenues. In addition, social insurance is usually restricted to formal employment. Labour market regulation include instruments that protect people against unemployment and work injuries. This type of social protection also has a strong promotive or even transformative element in the sense that they set standards for better living and working conditions within the labour market. Examples include minimal wage legislation, minimum work standards and training.

The ‘politics’ of social protection

The coverage of these different types of social protection measures differs among SSA countries. While a number of countries, like Ethiopia and Mozambique, are experimenting with the implementation of social protection instruments (mainly in the form of conditional or unconditional cash transfers), many of these programs are short-term pilots, with limited reach and weak institutionalization.8 Many low-income governments are reluctant to invest in nationally-owned social protection instruments.9 Implementation of such instruments requires a reallocation of resources, making it a politically sensitive issue that often encounters conflicting interests. In addition, even if the political will to reform is there, institutional barriers often prevent those measures from being effectively implemented. Hence, when analysing the anticipated effects of social protection on inclusive development, such political and institutional constraints – i.e. the political economy of inclusive development policies – should be taken into account. Questions to consider are: Why do some governments invest in social protection while others do not? What triggered their commitment? And what institutional factors are decisive?

The base for comparison

In countries where there are no social protection programmes, it is important to identify the costs of not providing a minimum standard of living or protection. For example, what are the consequences of not having old age provisions for the population? In countries with social protection programmes the relevant question concerns the cost-effectiveness of the programmes in generating inclusive development, preferably in comparison to other social protection programmes or alternative social policies. Such alternatives, often cheaper and politically less risky, can be considered as complements or substitutes of social protection interventions. In selecting the alternative social policy to be compared with social protection, the key guiding question is whether and how this policy contributes to concrete inclusive development objectives, such as reduced inequality, the accumulation of human capital, investment in, protection of and accumulation of productive assets, labour participation and the generation of local multipliers, collective citizen rights and spill-over effects. Although comparing the costs and benefits of social protection interventions with other social policies is methodologically challenging, such research would greatly contribute to the business case of social protection.

INCLUDE focuses on various types of social protection interventions aimed at poor and vulnerable groups, like child and family transfers, social pensions, conditional cash transfers, insurance and employment guarantee programmes. The interventions are formal  and may include the interaction with informal social protection mechanisms such as rotating savings and credit schemes (ROSCAs), and programs that are regular and (to be) implemented at a national scale. One-off interventions, emergency support and/or pilot projects, although important, are of lesser interest.

Type of analysis for social protection

Research on the long-term effects of social protection interventions can adopt either quantitative or qualitative research methods. Quantitative analyses are based on micro-level data such as household surveys and/or administrative data. Analysing whether social protection interventions are more cost-effective than alternative social policy interventions are thus only possible when comparable datasets for both interventions are available. Quantitative analyses could for example be oriented towards a) the use of short term impact of social protection programmes to model scenarios for medium and long term impact, b) a combination of the short term impact of social protection programmes with an approach that traces the pathways or transmission channels at the level of the beneficiaries to develop a narrative on the medium term inclusive development effect of social protection programmes, or c) the use of the short term impact of social protection programmes to consider the complementarity of different social protection programmes and/or the substitutability of social protection and alternative social policies. To complement such studies, qualitative analyses could for example trace the benefits of the transfers and provide insights in the barriers and opportunities at household or institutional level and may be used to analyse the role of cultural or political-economy differences impacting on social protection programmes.

The aim of INCLUDE is to share both existing and new knowledge on which, and the conditions under which, social protection programmes are more effective in achieving intermediate development objectives compared to alternative social policies. Through a wide variety of content – updates from the research consortia, expert opinions, case-studies and stakeholder mappings –  the Platform aims to contribute to informed advice and policy prescriptions for policy-makers in Africa and in the Netherlands on how inclusive development objectives can be integrated in the design, implementation and evaluation of social protection interventions.


  1. 1. This article is a shortened version of the Concept Note ‘The business case for social protection in Sub-Saharan Africa’, written by Franziska Gassmann, UNU-Merit/MGSoG, Maastricht University, and also based on the Call for Proposals ‘Inclusive Development and Social Protection’, prepared by NWO-WOTRO. This article is prepared by the Secretariat of INCLUDE.
  2. 2. See for an extensive overview of the international discussion on how social protection impacts on inclusive development, The Broker’s Dossier on Social Protection.
  3. 3. See for example: Niño-Zarazúa M., A. Barrientos, S. Hickey, and D. Hulme (2012) ‘Social Protection in Sub-Saharan Africa: Getting the Politics Right’, World Development, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 163–176.
  4. 4. Ghana, Benin, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. See for specific country-information, here.
  5. 5. Institute of Development Studies (2013) ‘Promoting Inclusive Social Protection in the Post-2015 Framework’, IDS Policy Briefing, Issue 39, July 2013. Available here. See also: Devereux, S. and R. Sabates-Wheeler (2004) ‘Transformative Social Protection’, IDS Working Paper, 232. Available here (pdf)
  6. 6. For a comprehensive overview see: Vijsel, A. van de (2013) ‘Protect or Promote? The different faces of social protection’, October 22, 2013.
  7. 7. In: Niño-Zarazúa, M, A. Barrientos, S. Hickey, and D. Hulme (2012) ‘Social Protection in Sub-Saharan Africa: Getting the Politics Right’, World Development, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 163–176.
  8. 8. Niño-Zarazúa, M, A. Barrientos, S. Hickey, and D. Hulme (2012) ‘Social Protection in Sub-Saharan Africa: Getting the Politics Right’, World Development, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 163–176.
  9. 9. See for example Hickey, S. (2008) ‘Conceptualising the politics of social protection in Africa’, In: Barrientos, A. and D. Hulme (Eds.) (2008) Social protection for the poor and poorest: Concepts, policies and politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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