There is growing recognition that institutions, politics and ideologies shape national social protection agendas, policies and appetite for resource allocation (Lavers & Hickey, 2015; Murshed et al., 2017; Seekings, 2017).
Social protection has several areas of political debate and ideological contestation. Targeting is a common debate; for example, the means-tested cash transfer for children in Mongolia was later changed to a universal child benefit as the government adopted more populist and socialist values (Slater & Farrington, 2009). This programme has now become targeted again. For further information on promotion of universal social protection, see What is social protection? Analytical concepts and Coverage, spend and systems.
Dependency is a second area of debate. Some governments, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, choose public works programmes for the working age poor instead of unconditional cash transfers and limit the programme duration, as this is seen as preventing dependency on handouts (McCord, 2012). Governments and donors are also attracted to graduation programmes due to their alignment with broader development goals, with concomitant risk of ‘excessive political pressure to demonstrate “success”’ (Devereux & Ulrichs, 2015: 145).
Meanwhile, pensions are historically popular for political decision-makers and the public alike, due to ‘their simplicity, transparency and obvious fairness’ (HelpAge International, 2004: 6). Moreover, as well as the benefits for the individual older poor people, social pensions are seen to benefit families (with the pension reducing the ‘drain’ on household expenditures by older people’s medicines) and society (pension incomes invested in productive enterprises supports economic growth) (Wening Handayani & Babajanian, 2012: 3). In Asia, social pensions have tended ‘to move from targeted to universal benefits because of lower social and economic costs, greater political support, reduced corruption, and better integration in retirement savings systems’ (ibid.: 5). On the other hand, a review of the costs and benefits of social pensions in sub-Saharan Africa finds that universal social pensions’ expanded coverage ‘comes with a cost’, with countries that have these large pensions (e.g. Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia) spending most of their social protection funds on them (Guven & Leite, 2016: 11–12). For countries with an aging demographic, this will be a growing fiscal challenge (ibid.: 12).
In practice, how these debates are resolved depends on fiscal space, public support, and the political power of the different ministries and others involved. Public support and acceptability is a key factor in social protection policy decisions. Provision of public goods through social protection can increase popularity among recipient voters (Zucco, 2011), generating immediate political returns. These may potentially alienate wealthy or higher tax payers if they are excluded from social protection benefits (Slater & Farrington, 2009). Different factors affect different groups’ support for social protection, such as who pays, who benefits, and the perceived value or threat of the programme.
Lavers, T., & Hickey, S. (2015). Investigating the political economy of social protection expansion in Africa: At the intersection of transnational ideas and domestic politics (ESID Working Paper 47). Manchester: Effective States and Inclusive Development, University of Manchester.
This paper outlines a conceptual and methodological ‘political settlements’ framework for investigating the politics of social protection, with a particular focus on explaining the variation in progress made by African countries in adopting and implementing social protection programmes.
Hujo, K., & Cook, S. (2012). Political economy of social pensions in Asia. In Handayani, Sri W., & Babajanian, B. (Eds.), Social protection for older persons: Social pensions in Asia (pp. 11–59).
This chapter explores why countries in Asia have adopted social pension programmes and which factors have influenced their design. It provides an understanding of the politics of social pension reform in Asia and identifies policy lessons. There are clear differences among countries, but there are some points of convergence over which conditions are conducive to the introduction of pensions: robust affordability studies; linkages with poverty reduction and long-term development strategies; and political support.
McCord, A. (2012). The politics of social protection: Why are public works programmes so popular with governments and donors? (Background Note). London: ODI.
This background note is an initial exploration of the political economy and reasons for the popularity of PWPs to promote social protection and employment in low-income and fragile states. The research indicates that the expected benefits of PWPs are not necessarily based on evidence of positive impacts and outcomes, and decisions to implement these programmes are rather based on political choices. Political economy analysis is a useful tool for analysing these decision-making processes.
Murshed, S. M., Badiuzzaman, M., & Pulok, M. H. (2017). Fiscal capacity and social protection expenditure in developing nations (WIDER Working Paper 2017/60). Helsinki: UNU-WIDER.
Seekings, J. (2017). Affordability and the political economy of social protection in contemporary Africa (WIDER Working Paper 2017/43). Helsinki: UNU-WIDER.
Rao, S. (2011). Examples of successful fuel subsidy removal (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 754). Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.
Haider, H. (2010). Political economy of cash transfers (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 704). Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.
Podcast: A podcast on our latest findings on social protection in Africa. Lavers, T., Hickey, S., & McCord, A. (2016). Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID). (33m11) http://www.effective-states.org/listen-our-latest-findings-on-social-protection-in-africa/
 The programme was targeted to the lowest 60% in January 2018 due to delay in IMF loan disbursement, then raised to 80% in April 2018 (ILO–UNICEF, 2019: 30). ILO–UNICEF notes that ‘while still technically targeted, this latest update essentially made every child in the [proxy means testing] database eligible to receive the benefit, yet around 105,000 children, or 10 per cent of the total, are still excluded…’ (ibid.).