WASHINGTON, December 18, 2012—Social protection, once thought of as exclusive to rich and middle-income countries, is being increasingly employed in low-income countries in Africa, where policymakers are recognizing its potential as a powerful tool to reduce poverty, vulnerability, and social inequality.
The food, fuel and financial crises of 2008 have shown the vital role that social protection can play in cushioning poor and vulnerable households from shocks. Across Africa, countries with well-established safety nets, for example, have been able to scale up assistance quickly to these households in times of need.
In Ethiopia, hundreds of thousands of people were able to weather the recent Horn of Africa drought thanks to the long-running Productive Safety Net Program that combines cash transfers to poor households with paid temporary work on projects such as rehabilitating the land or building roads.
Social protection is also being used as a peace building tool for countries emerging from conflict. The Community Development Fund in Sudan and the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund have done much to help low-income families return to villages that were abandoned during times of conflict, by building or rehabilitating roads, schools, and health centers, and providing water supply and solar electrification.
In Rwanda, the government attributes a rapid decline in the poverty rate from 57 percent in 2006 to 45 percent in 2011 partly to the Vision 2020 Umurenge program of cash transfers and public works.
A strategy to build better social protection systems in Africa
With 47.5 percent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa still living on less than $1.25 a day, and with the number of shocks and natural disasters in a volatile new century increasing, social protection is more important than ever.
While on average spending on social protection is increasing across countries, overall levels of spending and coverage remain low barring in a few, mostly middle-income countries. Strengthening government capacity to coordinate and implement integrated social protection programs remains important.
Recognizing both the greater interest in social protection in Africa today, as well as the challenges that countries face in carrying it out effectively, the World Bank has a new Social Protection Strategy (2012–2022) in Africa. It will guide the Bank’s assistance to countries facing largely scattered social protection initiatives and their movement towards robust, coordinated, and efficient systems.
This strategy, which was informed by numerous consultations with governments and civil society in Africa, presents a unified vision for social protection and informs the choice of instruments, financing mechanisms and institutional arrangements for social protection.
The link between social protection and economic growth
Many African countries have recently registered very strong economic growth, but this growth has all too frequently not led to higher incomes or more productive jobs for many people. Social protection can be an effective way of redistributing the fruits of growth more evenly, including in countries where natural resources wealth does not typically benefit poor people.
Social protection programs can have a direct positive impact on poor families as they help build human capital and productivity as a result of better health, more schooling, and greater skills. It also helps families build up their physical assets and has a number of other good effects, including spillover or multiplier effects, on economic activities in a country.
“Social protection systems, when designed and implemented well, can lead to a rise in economic activity, as well as stimulate local markets and can even help facilitate unpopular but transformative economic reforms,” said Ritva Reinikka, Director of Human Development for Africa at the World Bank.
A good example of social protection helping to facilitate major changes in an economy is Mauritius, which transformed itself from a one-crop economy with high levels of poverty to a high-growth economy with low levels of poverty. Its system of social insurance and safety nets helped to protect poor people from the short-term effects of these changes, building the social cohesion necessary to implement a critical reform.
“Programs that protect people and promote opportunities are affordable even in low-income countries, costing as little as 1 to 2 percent of GDP,” Lynne Sherburne-Benz, Sector Manager for Social Protection in Africa, explained. “It is much less expensive than ad hoc emergency aid, and in the long-term there is a great cost in its absence, usually to women and children.”