THE POLITICS OF SOCIAL
PROTECTION IN AFRICA
PRESENTED BY DR SAM HICKEY, LECTURER IN INTERNATIONAL
DEVELOPMENT, INSTITUTE FOR DEVELOPMENT POLICY AND
MANAGEMENT, UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER, UK
APRIL 18, 12:30–2 P.M.
Dr. Hickey’s presentation was based on a paper he completed for a February 2005 conference at the
University of Manchester entitled “Social Protection for Chronic Poverty.” This work focuses on social
protection for the chronically poor, particularly pension schemes, cash transfers, and public works
projects in Uganda.
Currently, there are a variety of ways to define social protection. Dr. Hickey suggested it is useful to
view social protection as all forms of public action that reduce vulnerability, particularly for the poor.
Researchers are still trying to determine what makes social assistance feasible and sustainable in the
context of poverty and inequality.
LINKS BETWEEN POLITICS AND SOCIAL PROTECTION
The links between politics and social protection are both multidimensional and multidirectional, and they
can create virtuous or vicious circles. These links are particularly important to understand in African
countries where politics can have a significant impact on how a government’s limited resources are
Dr. Hickey raised the question of why there is not a greater demand for social protection in Africa. He
suggested that the links between politics and social protection have been largely negative , using as
examples structural adjustment loans, social funds, and the creation by donors of parallel institutions to
deliver aid. These have stigmatized the poor, tended to support patronage systems, and bypassed
mainstream government institutions.
Dr. Hickey pointed out that we may be moving away from this negative trend, as evidenced by the focus
on Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, joint policy making, direct budget support, and greater
democratization. These trends may improve governments’ abilities to deliver social protection in a
U.S. Agency for International Development
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20523
A MORE HOLISTIC FRAMEWORK
Dr. Hickey suggested that the links between politics and social protection act across four dimensions:
Political history, including colonial institutions and rules of the political game, continues to affect
attitudes about and forms of social protection today in Africa.
Social protection is influenced by the type of political system, its level of centralization, and
bureaucratic integrity and capacity. During elections, politicians can use social protection to bring in
or marginalize the opposition. Social protection schemes often require the support of the elite.
These factors include social attitudes, civil society pressures, social differences and inequality, and
levels of urbanization. There is some evidence that a shared sense of vulnerability among the poor
and non-poor can generate broad support for social protection.
Coordination of programs between donors can improve social protection. Donors can also spread
learning faster between national governments.
WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS OF SOCIAL PROTECTION?
There is mixed evidence on whether it builds social cohesion. Social protection can have the negative
consequence of labeling and stigmatizing the targeted populations. However, it can also lead to greater
political stability for the government implementing the program, creating a supportive constituency.
One useful way to look at social protection is as a political contract (referring to a social and not a
legal contract) of how various political forces align to support social protection with both positive and
negative results. Social pensions for blacks in South Africa and Namibia can be explained by extension of
the political contract beyond whites. But in Kenya and Botswana, social protection programs have
largely benefited regime supporters while excluding the poorest.
POLICY IMPLICATIONS FOR DONORS
Focus on strengthening the state and public sector – not just civil society.
Consider the consequences of parallel vs. integrated schemes and the sequencing of programs.
Pilot programs can be used to build broad support by first demonstrating effectiveness and
procedures of due process.
Donors should support and build the capacity of political parties, ministries or institutions that
advocate social protection.
Link the type and design of social protection to public discourse on social justice.
Improve data on marginalized populations and the consequences of their continued marginalization
for society as a whole. This can raise social protection’s profile and help ensure that it is part of the
Integrate this type of political analysis into day-to-day thinking in the donor community.
Q + A SESSION
The issue of the need for strong supply networks and fiscal limits on governments in implementing
conditional cash transfer programs was raised. Some research has shown that Africans in particular
have high expectations of what the state can deliver, which may be unrealistic in light of budget
restraints. (See Robert Bates’ work on democracy and macroeconomic stability). Dr. Hickey pointed
out that conditional cash transfer programs work well politically even if they’re not the best at targeting
the poorest; they may help get other pro-poor items on the agenda in the future. Although there is an
overattachment to the idea of the developmental state in Africa, there are limits. For example, South
Africans do not feel that the government should have a role in providing housing.
Concerns were raised regarding the issue of donors possibly undermining social contracts by
developing parallel institutions to deliver social protection. Dr. Hickey agreed that this is a concern and
that donors should work around or with social contracts. Donors should seek out constituencies
supporting relevant issues but not override them.
The idea of the role of politics in social protection was highlighted, particularly in terms of its
implication for election campaigns. The poor have been referred to as a “voter bank.” Also, the
development of government budgets is a highly political process. Devereaux has written about the
transformational nature of social protection and how it can help people move from being beneficiaries
to economic agents, which can also have an empowering effect on the poor. However, Dr. Hickey
cautions that this is not a strong enough argument to convince elites of the need for social protection.
They would be more likely to support social protection in light of evidence that it boosts recipients’
One participant also asked whether authoritarian or democratic governments are better for
delivering social protection. Dr. Hickey responded that there is some evidence that authoritarian
governments can provide the best (and the worst) outcomes. Democracies are more likely to give a
middle of the road result, leading to gradual improvement. Programs can be implemented more quickly
in an environment where the politics is less fractious, but the evidence on this subject is still mixed. Dr.
Hickey noted that moving from democracy to a more authoritarian regime in the hope of improving the
delivery of social programs is not a suggested course of action.
The issue of patronage in African societies was also raised. Dr. Hickey pointed out that the poor often
trade their agency for security. If the institution of patronage is removed, what will it be replaced with?
Informal forms of social protection, such as patronage, often prevent destitution. Social protection
programs at the national level can sidestep local patronage issues but they can also create a new type of