Extending Protection to the Poor Where the Needs are Greatest

April 28, 2014


The World Bank Group (WBG) supports sustainable and affordable safety net systems (SSNs) that protect families from shocks; help ensure that children grow up healthy, well-fed, and stay in school and learn; empower women and girls; and create jobs. Building sustainable and affordable safety nets in each developing country is a key component of the WBG’s Social Protection and Labor Strategy 2012-2022, which is helping countries build affordable social protection systems that enable individuals to manage risk and improve resilience by investing in human capital and improving people’s ability to access jobs.


The 2008-11 global economic crisis highlighted the importance of good social safety nets for reducing poverty and vulnerability. Countries with effective safety net programs used them to respond to the crises and disasters, while countries without such programs had to rely on ad hoc and less effective responses. Yet it is precisely in the poorest countries where the gap in the provision of SSNs is largest. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, four out of five poor families have no access to any safety nets program.

However, it takes time and political will to build good safety nets. Crises or post-disaster situations are worst times to develop new safety nets. Effective and cost-effective programs need a process of refining and fine-turning systems and capacity. For countries that already have some programs in place the challenge is to overcome fragmentation, to integrate individual programs into coordinated, national systems. It is important to hold safety nets to high standards of governance and results – both to ensure that they provide the most effective assistance to populations in need, but also so that they keep the confidence of both policymakers and the public. 


Building sustainable and affordable safety nets in each developing country is a key component of the Bank’s Social Protection and Labor Strategy 2012-2022, which aims to help countries move from fragmented programs to affordable social protection systems, enable individuals to manage risk and improve resilience by investing in human capital and improving people’s ability to access jobs.

The Bank works with countries to develop tailored tools and approaches; invest in knowledge, data, and analysis; provide “on-time” policy advice, as well as continuous technical assistance and capacity-building. The Bank supports a diverse set of safety net interventions, ranging from cash transfers to labor-intensive public works to school feeding programs. In low-income countries, the Rapid Social Response program is particularly instrumental in helping to address capacity constraints, provide demonstration of the success in developing effective delivery systems and in communicating results.


Safety nets globally are a strong force in reducing extreme poverty and achieving shared prosperity. Evidence from the new WBG ASPIRE database shows that, each year, safety nets in developing countries lift about 50 million people from absolute poverty (living on less than US$1.25/day). Unfortunately, these effects are smallest in low-income countries and fragile states, where the needs are greatest.

Major results of WBG support to safety net programs include:

  •  The safety nets portfolio from FY07-13 was just over US$12 billion, with 273 financing activities in 93 countries. The average annual commitment for safety nets during FY07-13 was US$1.72 billion, a threefold increase from US$567 million per year during FY02-07. Overall, US$9.2 billion, or 71 percent of the financing approved between FY07-13 was for member countries of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), and US$2.6 billion, or 21 percent, for the poorest countries through the International Development Association (IDA).
  • From FY11 to FY13, approximately 37.4 million new safety nets beneficiaries, including 20.6 million women, benefited from WBG support to SSNs. About 31.3 million of these beneficiaries were in IDA countries, while 6 million were in IBRD countries. A total of 1.5 million beneficiaries were in fragile and conflict-affected countries.
  • From FY05-13, more than 2,000 practitioners received training through programs including the WBG Core Course on Safety Nets and the South-South Learning Forum series. Safety Nets Communities of Practice, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange fora are active in Europe and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa, connecting practitioners from 30 countries and disseminating best practices.

Specific country results include:

  • Bank support to Mexico’s Oportunidades (US$1.5 billion in FY09, US$1.2 billion in FY11), conditional cash transfer program benefits 6.6 million families; increases health, nutritional, and educational coverage and quality; and supports an increase in the number of children advancing from primary to secondary school and from secondary to high school.
  • In Brazil, the Bank-supported Bolsa Familia program covers 12 million poor households (about 25 percent of the population) by providing monthly payments to families that send their children to school, meet vaccination requirements, and utilize health services. This program has been instrumental in reducing poverty and inequality in the country.

IDA Results

Ethiopia has achieved a huge progress in building national social safety net system. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Nets Project (PSNP), one of the largest IDA programs, provides cash and in-kind transfers through labor intensive public works for able-bodied households, and direct support to the rest. The WBG has been supporting the program since FY05. The latest IDA operation was in the amount of US$130 million in FY10. Additional financing in the amount of US$370 million was approved in FY12. The program has reached 7.6 million people, or 8 percent of the Ethiopian population, so far. In 2011, the PSNP was scaled up to meet the additional needs sparked by the Horn of Africa crisis. On top of its core beneficiaries, PSNP reached an additional 3.1 million people with transfers over a three-month period. It has been leveraged to provide beneficiaries with financial services (through the Household Asset Building Program, HABP). The combination of interventions has amplified the program’s impact and resilience; one visible result of this increased performance has been a boost in beneficiaries' use of fertilizers and, as a result, the productivity of agricultural workers. This increased agricultural self-reliance, in turn, has helped to revive local economies and may continue to provide significant multiplier effects.

In Senegal, the Rapid Response Child-Focused Social Cash Transfer and Nutrition Security Project provided 55,323 with cash transfers over the life of the project. In addition, the project reached a total of 1.3 million children under 5 through the community nutrition program. Finally, almost 300,000 school children in primary education received weekly micronutrients supplements and deworming medication twice in a one-year period.

Tanzania’s Productive Social Safety Net (PSSN), implemented as the third phase of Tanzania Social Action Fund, was approved in FY12 for US$154 million. Its goal is to create a comprehensive and permanent productive social safety net system with CCT and public works components for the poor and the vulnerable. 

In response to the food price crisis in Liberia, through the Food Price Crisis Trust Fund, the WGB supported a Cash-for-Works Temporary Employment Program, providing more than 680,000 days of employment to more than 17,000 beneficiaries. This trust fund provided US$3 million between FY09 and FY10. The program is now mainstreamed into social protection system for the country and the pilot led to another US$7.5 million IDA Crisis Response Window and Africa Catalytic Growth Fund project in FY11.This scaled up safety net project provided an additional 1.8 million days of employment for 45,000 beneficiaries.  

Bangladesh’s recent operation, Safety Net Systems for the Poorest Project, takes the lead as the biggest IDA operation in terms of volume (for a single project). Its objective is to integrate and improve the equity, efficiency and transparency of the existing safety net programs. The project was approved in FY12 for US$500 million. 

In 2008, Pakistan launched an extensive social protection program, providing cash transfers to the most vulnerable households. Within 10 months, the program provided cash transfers to 2.2 million families. By June 2012, Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) collected information on 7.15 million poor families out of which 4.2 million (about 15 percent of households in Pakistan) are receiving regular cash transfers.


" The safety net program has been a life saver. I now sell my products and earn enough money to put my three children to school, put food on the table and buy anything that we need.  "

Emahoy Belaynesh

Beneficiary, Food Aid Project in Ethiopia

Link to MDGs

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases
  • Develop a global partnership for development

Bank Group Contribution.

  • The safety nets portfolio from FY07 to FY13 reached just over US$12 billion, with 273 lending operations in 93 countries. Overall, US$9.2 billion, or 71 percent of the financing approved between FY07-13 was for IBRD countries, and US$2.6 billion, or 21 percent, for IDA countries.
  • In FY13 alone, 29 investment and policy lending operations were initiated to improve the coverage of social safety nets.
  • Among the 93 countries represented in the portfolio, 42 had no or limited exposure to the WBG safety nets engagement prior to FY07. Most of these countries were in Africa, reflecting the expansion of the WBG safety nets into low-income countries in the region.
  • The safety nets portfolio increased in relative terms. From FY07-13, 5 percent of the total WBG lending was to support safety nets, up from just 2.6 percent FY02-07.
  • With the support of Rapid Social Response fund (RSR), which helps low-income countries build social protection systems that will protect their people during future crises, in the last four years the WGB initiated the work on safety nets and other social protection topics under the RSR thematic areas  in 48 IDA and blend IDA countries amounting to $3.9 billion.
  • As of February 2014, 67 RSR grants worth US$37 million complemented US$3.8 billion worth of IDA resources.
  • The WBG spent approximately US$118 million on 281 SSN knowledge services over FY07–13, in 104 countries. About 23 percent of these studies were in Europe and Central Asia, closely followed by 20 percent in Africa.


Partnerships between national governments, donor agencies, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and community groups have helped build political will in support of safety nets. This cooperation has helped develop safety net approaches that are appropriate in diverse settings. It has also engaged the international community financially and technically in supporting safety nets. 

Some examples include:

  • The Social Protection Inter-agency Cooperation (SPIAC) Board is chaired jointly by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the WBG to improve inter-agency coordination in support of country-led social protection measures. Its main objectives are to promote social protection, enhance coordination and collaboration, and promote the exchange of knowledge, policy experience, and good practice, as well as data and information.
  • The WBG and bilateral partners in the Rapid Social Response Multi-Donor Trust Fund (the Russian Federation, Norway, Australia, Sweden, and the U.K.’s Department for International Development) support capacity building for safety nets and knowledge exchange for low-income countries.
  • There is ongoing collaboration with the ILO and the World Food Program on public employment programs, as well as in joint analytical work to produce and collect data to develop an external joint data platform to share and validate results of a set of indicators measuring the coverage, generosity, and impact of social protection programs (Social Protection Atlas).

Moving Forward

Building in-country capacities and expertise is at the center of the WBG’s work on safety nets.

  • Strengthening Safety Net Systems: The WBG has a range of financial and technical instruments to help clients design and implement safety net systems. Working with governments, the WBG’s goal is to develop tailored safety nets, combining an appropriate mix of interventions and robust administrative systems.
  • Sharing Knowledge: The WBG serves as a knowledge bank for data, research findings, and best practices in design and implementation. Generating and sharing this knowledge through advisory services, training, and “how to” resources is a priority.
  • Promoting Evidence-based Policy: The WBG promotes evidence-based decision-making with investments in research and learning through monitoring and evaluation, country studies, data, and toolkits.


The Productive Safety Net Project, Ethiopia

Emahoy Belaynesh, who is raising three children and a grandchild, is one of the beneficiaries of the productive safety net project in Ethiopia. With part of the grant she received, she bought seeds of several varieties of fruits and vegetables and planted them in her garden. Among other things, she grows corn, yams, carrots, coffee, oranges, and passion-fruit. She is also involved in beekeeping. “When my husband died I had no source of income and was having a hard time making ends meet,” Belaynesh said. “The safety net program has been a life saver. I now sell my products and earn enough money to put my three children to school, put food on the table and buy anything that we need. I am also able to put some money aside.” – Excerpt from Food Aid Project Helps Millions of Ethiopians Face Drought (Oct 2011)

Safety Net Project, Niger

Despite drought in the Sahel, Dijée Issa, a 30-year-old mother of four, has been able to beat hunger, stay healthy, and keep her children in school thanks to a small monthly cash payment from the government. The program also includes an information element on health and nutrition.  Through this program Dijé and others in Chagnassou village in Niger’s Illéla locality have also learned more about health and sanitation, and both the money and the training have been helpful. “The 10,000 CFA francs that we receive has been a great help,” Dijé says, “I pay a man 5,000 francs to bring water for my family, and I use the rest to buy rice, oil, and firewood so that I can feed my children.” The money allows Dijé to take care of her children even during hard times in a part of the world where many are chronically poor and malnourished, and lack basic food security. “When my daughter was born, I made sure to breastfeed her exclusively,” she continues, visibly proud of the plump baby playing on her lap. “So now look at her. Whenever I go out in public, everybody wants to carry her and play with her, because she looks so beautiful and clean and healthy.” – Excerpt from Feature Story “Social Safety Nets on the Rise in Africa, (April 2012)

37.4 million
beneficiaries of safety net programs from 2011 to 2013