Social assistance is direct, regular and predictable cash or in-kind resources transfers to poor and vulnerable individuals or households (Arnold et al., 2011: 91). It is usually provided by the state and financed by national taxes (Barrientos, 2010). Support from donors is also important in lower income contexts. Transfers are non-contributory, i.e. the full amount is paid by the provider. Some are targeted based on categories of vulnerability, and some are targeted broadly to low-income groups. This is the primary form of social protection available in most developing countries (Barrientos, 2010).
Cash transfers: are direct, regular and predictable transfers that raise and smooth incomes to reduce poverty and vulnerability (Arnold et al., 2011:2). Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCTs) are for the beneficiary to decide how to spend. Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) are given with the requirement that the beneficiary meets certain conditions – often related to human capital development, such as visiting a health clinic or ensuring children go to school.
Social pensions: are state pensions, a form of cash transfer targeted by age. Pensions are the most common social protection tool, with the widest global coverage and often highest national spend.
In-kind transfers: are economic and livelihood asset transfers to households, facilitating income generation. They tend to be larger, one-off transfers but can also be smaller, regular transfers, such as food transfers. They tend to take an integrated approach, linking the transfer with skills training and other activities (Holmes & Jones, 2013: 65).
School feeding: is a free nutritious meal at school – usually lunch – and sometimes take-home rations for children most in need. This is a type of in-kind assistance. These are near-universal – most countries that can afford to provide food for their schoolchildren do so (Bundy et al., 2009). They help encourage parents to keep children in school (Norton et al., 2001).
Public works programmes (PWPs; or Public Employment Programmes): provide jobs on infrastructure projects for cash or food. They are sometimes classified as labour market interventions depending on whether their function is primarily poverty alleviation, job creation, or social protection. They are politically popular although arguably inefficient (Norton et al., 2001).
These are contributory programmes where participants make regular payments to a scheme that will cover costs related to life-course events, for example, maternity, unemployment or illness (Barrientos, 2010). Sometimes costs are matched or subsidised by the scheme provider. Social insurance includes contributory pensions; health, unemployment, or disaster insurance; and funeral assistance (Norton et al., 2001). It can be provided formally through a bank or employer, or informally through a community-based pooled fund. Social insurance is strongly linked to the formal labour market, meaning coverage is often limited to formal workers.
Labour market interventions
Labour market interventions provide protection for poor people who are able to work, and aim to ensure basic standards and rights (Barrientos, 2010). Interventions can be active or passive:
- Active labour market policies aim to help the unemployed and the most vulnerable find jobs, through interventions such as job centres, training, and policies to promote small and medium sized enterprises.
- Passive interventions include maternity benefits, injury compensation, and sickness benefits for those already in work, financed by the employer. Passive interventions also include changes to legislation, for example establishing a minimum wage or safe working conditions.
Many poor people work within the informal sector, and some people with disabilities, the chronically ill and old may not be able to work at all, so labour market interventions cannot always reach them.
Traditional or informal social protection
Formal social protection systems do not offer complete coverage and inevitably exclude parts of the population. Traditional community-based forms of social protection distribute risk within a community and fill some of the gaps left by formal interventions (Norton et al., 2001). They are often self-funded, for example funeral insurance savings groups, but can be externally funded by the state or donors. Formal social protection should be carefully managed to enhance, rather than disrupt, existing informal systems (Harvey et al., 2007).
Other types of social protection
Social care and support is highly complementary to social protection, and sometimes considered to be social protection, as a form of social assistance. UNICEF recognises that social support helps address the interaction between social and economic vulnerability, through services such as home-based care and family support services (UNICEF, 2012).
Government or private sector subsidies are sometimes classified as social protection if they enhance access for the poor or act as safety nets. Subsidies can keep prices low for basic goods and services consumed by the poor (Norton et al., 2001). However, subsidies are often regressive. The Middle East and North Africa spend four per cent of GDP on fuel subsidies, which represents a form of social assistance, but most of the benefit goes to upper-income groups (Gentilini et al., 2014).
Price support is state intervention to protect market prices for the goods produced by the poor, which can smooth income. There is a tendency for these temporary measures to become permanent, which institutionalises unprofitable production (Norton et al., 2001).
Arnold, C., with Conway, T. & Greenslade, M. (2011). Cash Transfers Literature Review. London: Department for International Development.
What impact do cash transfers have on reducing poverty and increasing the resilience of poor households? This comprehensive literature review assesses the evidence and looks at the extent to which it can be generalised. It shows how design and financing features help to maximise transfers’ effectiveness in a range of circumstances. Ultimately, cash transfers work as part of a broader strategy to achieve economic and social development.
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Barrientos, A. (2010). Social Protection and Poverty (Social Policy and Development Programme Paper Number 42). Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.
What is the potential for social protection programmes to address poverty and vulnerability in developing countries? This comprehensive report provides an overview of social protection and an assessment of its impact in Latin America, South and East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries with stronger social protection show lower levels of poverty and vulnerability and are more resilient in the face of social and economic change or shock. However, financial sustainability and capacity limitations are challenges that must be addressed. It is helpful to view social protection financing as a ‘remix’ of public expenditure rather than a new expense.
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Bundy, D., Burbano, C., Grosh, M., Gelli, A., Jukes, M., & Drake, L. (2009). Rethinking School Feeding – Social Safety Nets, Child Development and the Education Sector. Rome: World Food Programme and World Bank. (Executive Summary).
This review provides guidance on how to develop and implement effective school feeding programmes, both as a productive safety net, as part of the response to the global crises, and as a fiscally sustainable investment in human capital. Available data suggest that every country for which we have information is seeking to provide food, in some way and at some scale, to its schoolchildren.
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Norton, A., Conway, T. & Foster, M. (2001). Social protection concepts and approaches: Implications for policy and practice in international development (Working Paper 143). London: ODI.
How can international agencies contribute to improving the coverage and effectiveness of social protection as a component of poverty reduction strategies? This ODI paper reviews conceptual developments of the meaning and importance of social protection and looks at experience of different policy instruments.