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Addressing inequalities for children – how far can social protection policies stretch?

August 15, 2012

As development policy makers, practitioners, and researchers alike are taking stock of progress towards the MDGs, debates about what comes next are in full swing. Consensus about the focus of future initiatives, and whether this should entail another new set of goalposts and indicators, is yet to be reached. Nevertheless, a background paper by the UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda proposes a number of principles and dimensions to form an inherent part of a post-2015 framework. Equity is one of the listed principles and inclusive social development one of the dimensions through which to abide by those principles.

A summary of the UN System Task Team paper’s key points were presented by one of its authors, Richard Morgan of UNICEF, during a meeting on inequality and child development a few weeks ago in London. I blogged about this meeting before and other participants are sharing their thoughts about the issues that arose in their various blogs today, including Young Lives’ Paul Dornan, Save the Children’s Alex Cobham and Oxfam’s Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva [on Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power blog later this week]. 

One of the concerns expressed in that meeting was the commonly made link between inequality and economic growth; this argument is considered to appeal more strongly to politicians and policy-makers than moral or right-based arguments do. A narrow focus on this economic argument, however, risks the perpetuation and further entrenchment of those already marginalised and excluded. The economic argument suggests that a decrease of inequality will benefit economic growth as more can participate in and contribute to the process of economic growth through their human capital. But what about those that have comparatively little human capital to give, such as disabled or chronically ill? Although the economic argument may help in get inequality higher up on the post-2015 agenda, it may not present the best guidance with respect to how to go about reducing inequalities.

The background paper by the UN Task Team puts forward three fundamental principles, namely i) equity; ii) human rights; and iii) sustainability (UN Task Team, 2012). In addition, four core dimensions have been identified in which progress is deemed crucial to adhere to the fundamental principles and ensure a ‘rights-based, equitable, secure and sustainable world for all people’ (UN Task Team, 2012: 25). Inclusive social development represents one of those four dimensions. Social protection can be seen as one of the major policy options to achieve such inclusive social development. It has certainly proven to be one that is gaining popularity with the number and scope of programmes expanding rapidly across the globe. Particularly with respect to children, interventions such as child benefits, school feeding programmes and conditional cash transfers are considered to play an important role in improving their lives and inequalities across place and time. But how far can social protection go in terms of promoting equity and reducing inequalities for children?

The evidence base on what social protection can achieve in terms of reducing poverty and improving outcomes for children is expanding rapidly (see DFID, 2011; Handa, Devereux and Webb, 2011; Hanlon, Barrientos and Hulme, 2010; Ellis, Devereux and White, 2009; and World Bank, 2009 for an overview). It is certainly true that social protection programmes can go a long way in improving lives and, when targeted to the right groups, can reduce inequalities in society.

Far less is known, however, about inequalities within households and how social protection impacts those, either positively or negatively. Rachel Sabates-Wheeler and myself I have argued before that much of what is considered to be child-sensitive social protection, or gender-sensitive social protection, is based on common assumptions rather than real knowledge about what aspects of social protection design and implementation beneficial for children or women (Sabates-Wheeler and Roelen, 2011; Roelen and Sabates-Wheeler, 2011). Narrowly targeted programmes, such as orphan benefits for example, may lead to strong negative effects, particularly with respect to intra-household dynamics and inequalities. Research in Botswana shows that the OVC programme that transfers cash to individual orphans leads to tensions within the household, especially in those households where also non-orphaned children are present. Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) may have a similar effect with children within one household ‘competing’ for who gets to go to school as at least one child needs to stay at home to do household chores or work on the family farm.

Notwithstanding the strong potential that social protection holds for improving outcomes for children and reducing inequalities between them, its role needs to be considered with scrutiny. If social protection is to be considered a policy strand as part of the ‘inclusive social development’ and respect the principles of equity and human rights in a post-2015 era, the way in which particular programme design and implementation features play out for children need to be more carefully considered and assessed. A failure to do so may see us marginalising those most vulnerable and excluded even further.


DFID (2011) Cash Transfers. Evidence Paper. London: DFID Policy Division.

Ellis, F., S. Devereux and P. White (2009) Social Protection in Africa. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Garcia, M. and C. Moore (2012) The Cash Dividend. The Rise of Cash Transfer Programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington DC: The World Bank.

Handa, S., Devereux, S. and Webb, D. (editors) (2011) Social Protection for Africa’s Children. London: Routledge.

Hanlon, J., Barrientos, A. and Hulme, D. (2010) Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South. Sterling VA: Kumarian Press.

Roelen, Keetie and Rachel Sabates-Wheeler (2011) “A child sensitive approach to social protection: serving practical and strategic needs”, presented at the IDS/CSP Conference on Social Protection for Social Justice, Brighton, 13-15 April 2011

Sabates-Wheeler, R. and K. Roelen (2011) “Transformative social protection programming for children and their carers: a gender perspective”, Journal for Gender and Development, 19(2), 179-194

UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda (2012) Addressing     Inequalities: The heart of the post-2015 agenda and the future we want for all Thematic     Think Piece, ECE, ESCAP, UNDESA, UNICEF, UNRISD, UN Women.


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