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social protection – HIV, nutrition and West Africa

November 2, 2012

I came across a number of interesting and (fairly) new references with respect to social protection this week.

 The first is a State of the Evidence paper on HIV Sensitive Social Protection in Sub-Saharan Africa by UNICEF and the Economic Policy Research Institute. This paper builds on emerging evidence as well as recent overview studies globally and at regional level. It provides an evidence-based analysis framework but most interestingly analyses the evidence gaps with respect to HIV sensitive social protection. Amidst the burgeoning number of studies and reports, the lack of focus on vulnerable group and limited availability of evidence on the differential impact of conditional versus unconditional programmes, optimal benefit size, desired duration of programmes and differential impacts on men versus women were highlighted as some of the major gaps.

 The second is another paper that aimed to collate evidence on the impact of social protection, but that is focused particularly on the effectiveness of cash transfer programmes on improving nutritional status. In their paper, Manley, Gitter and Slavchevska undertook a systematic review of articles that reported on height for age. They found that programmes diverged greatly in terms of their effectiveness, and it terms of the conditionality versus unconditionality debate point out that: “Conditionalities with health components are statistically indistinguishable from unconditional programmes, while other types of requirements strongly inhibit child growth.”  Although a very interesting and certainly useful overview of evidence, Lawrence Haddad points out that in the end only 18 studies were included in this overview. More research is needed.

 Finally, the IFPRI West and Central Africa Office published a thematic research note on Social Protection in West Africa. Although strictly speaking, it is not about West Africa. The note holds a number of interesting short briefings about topics relevant for the development of social protection in West Africa (and elsewhere) drawing on experiences from mostly Southern and Eastern Africa. This includes process related issues (policy processes, affordability of social protection) as well as concerns around impact (on productivity and nutrition). Don’t expect any in-depth discussion but rather an invitation for further thinking and reading.


Vulnerability and Poverty – it’s what makes us tick

September 28, 2012

Our team at IDS – the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction (VPR) team – has now also entered the blogosphere. Our team blog went live yesterday and has the apt name ‘Povertics’.

Team leader Allister McGregor kicked us off and discussed the technocratisation of poverty metrics (as ‘povertics’ does not only elude to what makes us tick, but also refers to an issue that we work on a lot – poverty metrics). He argues that poverty analysis has become to technocratic, and has lost sight of the politics. He calls it the biggest failure of development policy in the 20th century.

Team members will contribute to the blog on a weekly basis on a range of different issues. Check it out now:


Against Happiness?

September 24, 2012

A new blog post is long overdue. This is despite the fact that September has been an eventful month, especially as I attended the Human Development and Capabilities Association (HDCA) conference in Jakarta. The 3-day conference was packed with paper presentations and plenary lectures and discussion, including a recorded interview with Tony Atkinson as interviewer and Amartya Sen as interviewee. One plenary session in particular caught my interest – Frances Stewart gave a lecture entitled ‘Against Happiness’.

In her lecture, Frances made a convincing case not to use happiness measures to guide policy and mostly development efforts. She said that of course she is not against happiness per se – she was not advocating for people to be unhappy, but rather attacking the argument that happiness is the ultimate goal and that all else is instrumental in reaching that goal. Thereby her critique was mainly directed towards Layard and his work on happiness and measurement of that concept.

 She outlined a number of arguments to support her case:

 –       There are many different definitions of happiness, and it would be impossible to capture that. A single person’s definition can even change during the course of the day. (Apparently people are most miserable early in the morning and happiest when they go to bed in the evening.)

 –       The different definitions of happiness for different people make it impossible to look at the distribution of poverty across a population. Also, people are more affected by losses than they are by gains, implying that redistribution may lead to overall loss of happiness in the short term.

 –       If everything becomes instrumental towards reaching the ultimate goal of happiness, we may find ourselves accepting issues that include violations of human rights. Things that we have considered unacceptable before now become part of the means to an end.

 –       There is the problem of adaptation. When faced with a particular situation for long enough, one adapts and gets used to that situation and starts to change its comparators. What seemed like a terrible situation before (or to others), may not be that bad after all if everyone else has the same experience.

 Many of these arguments hold for other measures of progress (such as wellbeing or multidimensional poverty) as well. Trying to capture different definitions or notions of what progress or a good life represents is a struggle across the board. The issue of adaptation is not new either, with some measures of relative poverty incorporating the fact that people living in different countries have different comparators.

 But the most pertinent issue that Frances raises with respect to the problem of using happiness as an ultimate outcome is the potential for adverse policy implications. If losses cause a greater decrease in happiness than gains lead to increases in happiness, we may just want to maintain the status quo. And if accepting our situation leads to greater improvements in happiness levels in the short-term, we may end up promoting adaptation and acceptance rather than actual change.

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.

chronic poverty in rural Ethiopia

August 14, 2012

Despite considerable improvements in poverty rates and living conditions for children and their families across Ethiopia, many still live in vulnerable conditions. A newly published IDS Working Paper by Laura Camfield and myself uses quantitative and qualitative data from the Young Lives study to investigate movements in and out of poverty in rural Ethiopia and particularly considers those factors that prevent movements out of poverty or that lock people into poverty.

A news story on this has been published on the IDS website today, which also where the working paper can be found.


equivalence scales and the actual cost of living

July 26, 2012

Recent research published by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex provides interesting new insights into changes of income needs as household composition changes. Bollinger, Nicoletti and Pudney used the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) to analyse how different family structures relate to those families’ abilities to make ends meet. They find that whilst changing from a one-adult household to a two-adult household only marginally increases the required living costs, the addition of a first child almost doubles the required income.

These findings are not only interesting but also important as they have strong implications for how we measure poverty. The extent to which household composition changes income needs is commonly accounted for by using equivalence scales. Those scales translate additional income needs for each additional household member in a ‘weight’ given to that additional household member. Following the findings by Bollinger, Nicoletti and Pudney, an extra adult household member would receive very little weight (say 0.2) as income needs only increase slightly. The first child in that household, however, should be given a weight of a full extra person (i.e. 1) as income needs are said to double. Current equivalence scales, however, work quite the opposite. The modified OECD equivalence scale, the most commonly used scale used for poverty measurement in OECD countries, gives a weight of 0.5 to any additional adult household member. Children, however, are only given a weight of 0.3, implying that households only need 30 percent additional income to cover the costs of a child in the household.   

Implications of using different assumptions with respect to income needs for different household compositions are large. The larger weight given to additional household members, the larger the assumed incomes needs are and thus the higher poverty estimates will be. Given the large discrepancy between the assumed additional income needs for children in the household, such implications are largest in terms of child poverty. The ISER publication estimates that child poverty in the UK could be as much as 30% higher if equivalence scales were adjusted following their research. In other words, current poverty figures are likely to provide a considerable underestimate of child poverty, not only in the UK but also all other OECD countries using the same equivalence scale. Chances are slim, however, that this research will change practice with respect to the use of equivalence scales in poverty measurement. Poverty estimates are highly political and no one would like to see the percentage of people or children living in poverty in their country go up as a result of purely technical change in how these estimates are calculated. That said, research like this may give hope for practice in developing countries where monetary poverty is still largely estimated on a per capita basis. A potential move to using equivalence scales in the future should be well-informed by people’s own perception and opinions about how changes in household composition change the need for financial means.

Inequality, Children’s Development and Post-2015 Debates

July 19, 2012

UNICEF, Young Lives and Save the Children organised a roundtable yesterday on ‘Inequality, Children’s Development and Post-2015 Debates’. During an afternoon session, representatives from research and policy presented their views on inequality and children’s development in terms of how far we’ve come since the MDGs and the future ahead.

Presentations by Young Lives provided interesting insights into changes in child wellbeing, inequality and children’s own aspirations since the start of this longitudinal study in 2002. Three round of quantitative and qualitative data are available from four countries (Vietnam, India, Peru and Ethiopia), providing a wealth of information and unprecedented opportunities for researching outcomes for children as well as the processes leading up to such outcomes. The presentation by Jo Boyden, based on the publication ‘Child Development and Economic Development: Lessons and Future Challenges’ indicated that economic growth in all four study countries has led to reductions in poverty but has also been accompanied by growing socio-economic disparities. These include disparities across different child outcomes (findings for Vietnam showed that while many more children have access to clean drinking water, access to hygienic sanitation is lacking behind), across social groups but also across stages of childhood with adolescent children facing starker disparities than those in infancy. Kirrily Pells presented interesting on-going research on children’s aspirations and perceptions and how those have changed over time. Qualitative research showed that improvements in well-being have caused shifts in aspirations (previously it was a girl’s ambition to go to school, now she worries about being employed and getting a job she likes) and that inequality negatively impacts children’s aspirations and hopes for the future. Also, the impact of inequality on children’s hopes or fears is not limited to poor children only; better-off children indicated that they have greater fears with respect to their security in relation to rising inequality.

A common theme across all presentations, including those by UNICEF and Naila Kabeer, was the importance of making sure that inequality gains high prominence in any post-2015 agenda. Disparities between children are large, whether that is between countries, within countries, between socio-economic groups and even within such socio-economic groups. An unresolved issue is not only how to make sure that inequality will feature in a post-2015 framework but also to make sure that it is done to the benefit of all children. A number of concerns were raised:

– Investment in children is often linked to the argument of human capital development and thereby economic growth. The point was raised that there is a real danger that this will lead to exclusion of certain children as not all children will be able to develop their ‘human capital’ to the same extent, and contribute differently to economic growth.

– A similar point relates to the lack of a ‘human face’ in linking the need to reduce inequality to economic growth arguments. ‘Development with a human face’ was coined in the mid-90s to counteract the Washington consensus and strong focus on structural adjustment programmes – it seems that we are back in a position where advocating for human rights and social justice as core principles is necessary.

– The only way in which inequality will make it high up on the post-2015 agenda is if there is a strong and common voice from those advocating for this cause. Although different interest groups may have their particular focus areas, there is a danger of sending a too convoluted message.