Where next for social protection?

Recently, researchers and advocates working to promote the adoption of social protection policies in southern Africa got together and asked: Has social protection in sub-Saharan Africa lost its way?

Their disussions resulted in a thought-provoking document, which is available on Wahenga.net here,  as well as here.

The document springs from meetings hosted by the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP), along with  the Centre for Social Protection (CSP) at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia (UEA-DEV), and the Social Protection Programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

The basic problem the paper poses, is that over the past decade, donors, researchers and advocates have spent a lot of time and effort on a range of activities, which have ultimately yielded few results. Activities have included the financing of pilots and demonstration projects, building up evidence of the impact of social protection programmes, giving training and support to implementing ministries, mobilising civil society and lobbying parliamentarians.

But despite the investment of plenty of money, energy and technical expertise, these efforts have yielded patchy results. Some governments have introduced significant social protection programmes (such as Lesotho’s Old Age pension), but many others have not been convinced.

The document goes on to ask, “What’s wrong with the way outsiders are engaging in social protection in Africa? It outlines several problems, including:

Social protection has been too externally-driven: Donors and NGOs have preferred to introduce social protection through limited pilot projects, but these have not been taken up and translated into national programmes, for a range of reasons.

Government programmes and preferences not given enough prominence: Most governments have their own programmes and priorities for reducing poverty and vulnerability, which differ from models preferred by outsiders  – but these have not been given enough attention.

Imported approaches may not be appropriate: Many of the concepts and models come from western ideas of social welfare and may not fit local contexts.

As result of these problems and failures, the discussion paper proposes five options for development partners to pursue in future:

  • Learn from government-driven programmes and work with governments to monitor, evaluate, improve and extend them;
  • Work through appropriate institutional mechanisms, at regional and national levels;
  • Learn lessons for national implementation, rather than from pilot projects;
  • Be driven less by instruments and locate social transfers within a broader national social policy agenda, by paying more attention to social protection objectives – including reducing vulnerability; and
  • Find new levers for supporting African governments, based on a more sophisticated understanding of the political economy in each national context.

Finally, the authors put forward 10 guiding principles for how development partners should approach their work on social protection in Africa. Among these are:

  • Recognise the importance of social protection: Social protection remains a vital tool for achieving inclusive growth in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Support national policy priorities: First identify the national vision for social protection, then design interventions around those objectives, starting from what is already in place.
  • Involve participants: Engage social protection participants in vulnerability assessments, programme selection, design choices and delivery.
  • Focus on outcomes: recognise that social protection is not an end in itself (numbers of people covered by social protection), but rather a means to an end (reduced poverty and vulnerability).

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