In southern Africa, social protection is often used in response to growing livelihood vulnerabilities. Based on studies of 20 social transfer schemes commissioned by the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP), the authors argue that the design, implementation, and success of social protection instruments are dictated by: (i) international (donor/NGO) ideologies; and (ii) national (government) political processes. Social protection programmes which arise as a result of domestic political agendas rather than ‘imported’ interventions are more likely to succeed in terms of coverage, fiscal sustainability, political institutionalisation and impacts.
The drivers of social protection schemes (initiation, funding, design, technical assistance, monitoring and evaluation) tend to fall into three clusters:
- Donor/NGO-initiated projects with varying degrees of government buy-in, such as Concern Worldwide’s Dowa Emergency Cash Transfer Project in Malawi and the DFID-funded Protracted Relief Programme in Zimbabwe
- Government-led programmes with donor buy-in, such as the Fertiliser Subsidy Removal Programme in Malawi and the Food Subsidy Programme in Mozambique
- Government-run programmes with no donor support, such as the Food Security Pack in Zambia and the Old Age Pension in Lesotho.
As social protection interventions in southern Africa move away from short-term food-based responses to the setting up of longer-term sustainable systems, three overlapping agendas emerge: technical, ideological and political. The ‘outcome’ – what is implemented, what goes to scale, what succeeds or fails – is determined by the articulation of these overlapping agendas. Evidence from the case studies suggests that the three agendas have driven moves towards extending or introducing social protection systems in the region.
- Technical (‘what works’): Concerned with efficacy, cost-effectiveness, and implementation capacity. International NGOs and donors have driven many social transfer initiatives in response to the food crisis of 2001/2 and on the basis of the Millennium Development Goals. Many of these interventions are pilot projects which are designed to gather evidence on best practice as a prelude to support for national social protection systems.
- Ideological (‘what’s right’): Concerned with universal rights for broadly-defined groups of people (children and mothers, poor households, elderly people, the disabled, the chronically sick). Rights-based approaches promote the idea of a ‘social contract’ between government and citizens, in contrast to schemes led by seemingly unaccountable international actors.
- Political (‘what’s popular’): Concerned with the political impact of social protection (such as its vote-winning potential). Social protection systems are also often politicised by ruling and oppositional parties, and therefore play a crucial role in the run-up to elections. While in many senses negative, the politicisation of social protection is not ‘necessarily bad’, because it shows that social protection is on the national political agenda.
Donor-driven pilot projects often bypass or even undermine existing government provisions. Donors should invest instead in building the capacity of Social Welfare Departments so that scaled-up interventions enjoy national political support.