Transformative social protection for Africa’s children
Introduction Several chapters in this book have analyzed the impacts of social transfers on children’s well-being. Convincing empirical evidence has been presented supporting claims that children in households in receipt of regular cash grants benefit in material ways, through improved food consumption and nutrition, access to education and health services, and – usually – reduced child labor (see chapters by Hoddinott et al. on Ethiopia, Miller et al. on Malawi and Samson et al. on South Africa). One critique of social cash transfers is that they alleviate the worst symptoms of material deprivation, but they do not address the underlying causes of poverty and vulnerability. At best, social transfers provide social assistance (an income boost for the chronically poor) and social insurance (consumption smoothing against livelihood shocks). But, critics argue, cash transfers do not contribute to social transformation – they do not challenge the economic and social injustices that generate and perpetuate structural poverty. If they are well designed and accurately targeted, social transfers can make poor people less poor. If this is all that the advocates of cash transfers can claim (and the evidence for these limited impacts is certainly persuasive), it is little wonder that many African governments are skeptical and would prefer to allocate their scarce public resources to programs that promise higher poverty-reducing returns, such as fertilizer subsidies to food-insecure farmers. Two responses to this critique can be advanced. One is to rebut the critics with evidence of the positive spill-overs that cash transfers can generate. For one thing, their investment and multiplier effects may be more significant than their purchasing power alone, which elevates cash transfers above, say, food aid (Sabates-Wheeler and Devereux, 2010). Even small transfers are invested in family farming and micro-enterprise activities (e.g. petty trading). Also, cash transfers are not directly consumed, but spent, which generates income multipliers through the local economy, stimulating trade, integrating local markets and relieving liquidity constraints even for non-beneficiaries (Barrientos and SabatesWheeler, forthcoming). In one project in Malawi, this multiplier effect was quantified at over two Kwacha for each Kwacha transferred (Davies and Davey
2008). Through these mechanisms, cash transfers can generate local economic growth and poverty reduction – not just reducing the severity of poverty in the short term but, in favorable circumstances, reducing the poverty headcount in the long run. The empirical evidence for these effects is less robust than modeling simulations suggest, but the evidence base is growing (Ardington and Lund 1995; Schwarzer 2000; Barrientos and DeJong 2006). In terms of improving children’s well-being, “graduating” children from poor families out of poverty is a considerable and important achievement. However, this assumes that the problem faced by vulnerable children is principally one of income poverty, and that injecting cash into poor households will be sufficient to reduce children’s vulnerability. Accordingly, the second response to the critique of cash transfers is to accept their limitations. The great strength – and great weakness – of cash transfers is that they intervene at the level of individuals and households, rather than at the levels of society, governance and economic policy, where the structural origins of poverty are located and where structural interventions – rather than targeted transfers – are required. Narrow conceptualizations of poverty as income or food deficits ignore the reality that poverty is multi-dimensional (it has social and psychological as well as material dimensions), that poverty is dynamic (the poor are not a homogeneous group, but are constantly “churning” around the poverty line as their circumstances change), and that poverty is experienced differently by different people in different places and times (urban poverty has a distinctive character compared with rural poverty; agricultural seasonality means that poverty and hunger are more severe at certain times of year, and so on). Moreover, social protection is not principally about poverty reduction, but about managing risks and vulnerabilities. Like poverty, vulnerability can be conceptualized narrowly and economistically – the risk of future poverty – but a broader definition recognizes that vulnerability has many dimensions, including social (discrimination against children with disabilities, gender bias against girls, or marginalization of children from ethnic minorities), physical (childhood “killer diseases,” threats to the person – gender-based violence, child abuse), economic (exploitation of child labor, child prostitution) and psychological (emotional stress and insecurity associated with orphanhood or living in conflict areas, the trauma and disrupted family life suffered by child soldiers). For millions of African children, these vulnerabilities are profound and disturbingly real, and are unlikely to be effectively addressed with conventional social protection instruments such as food aid or cash transfers. For instance, to the extent that the vulnerability of girls, orphans or foster children is shaped by intra-household inequalities in resource allocation and child labor demands, social protection that is dominated by targeted transfers delivered to parents or carers, without dealing with the intra-household constraints to resource sharing, will do little to alleviate their vulnerability. It could be argued that introducing conditionalities to cash transfer programs ensures that parents fulfill their obligations to their children, by relaxing a financial constraint and requiring children to attend schools and health clinics. There is persuasive evidence for positive
education and health outcomes from conditional cash transfer programs in Latin America (see Adato and Hoddinott 2010). However, children face other (noneconomic) vulnerabilities that cannot be “conditioned,” and there is evidence that unconditional cash transfers are also invested in child health and education. Even interventions that address non-economic sources of vulnerability can be criticized for addressing symptoms or consequences, rather than causes. A review of 17 National Plans of Actions (NPA) for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in Africa revealed that great emphasis was given to psycho-social counseling, which of course is often necessary; however there was little that challenged or even investigated the structural vulnerabilities facing OVC and the factors that perpetuate these vulnerabilities (Sabates-Wheeler and Pelham 2006). This chapter argues that “transformative” social protection for Africa’s children requires a multi-pronged suite of interventions to address the range of vulnerabilities that children face, within which cash transfers are only one of several potentially powerful policy instruments. We also argue for a “life-course” analysis that disaggregates the category of “children” into several cohorts, each having distinct social protection needs, starting before the child is born. The next section argues for “a structural approach to structural vulnerabilities,” specifically, recognizing that some sources of vulnerability are transmitted across generations – from parents to children. “Transformative social protection” is introduced as a framework that adopts this broader perspective. Children’s vulnerabilities, and social protection responses, are disaggregated by age cohort (see also UNICEF 2008a): (1) pre-natal (intergenerational transmission); (2) post-natal (survival, birth registration); (3) pre-school (undernutrition, gender bias); (4) school-aged (education, child labor, early marriage); (5) adolescents: (sexual exploitation, abuse, AIDS, child-headed households). Section 3 considers the implications of this analysis for social protection, arguing that improving the material and social conditions of children requires not only targeted cash transfers at the individual and household levels, but legislation and sensitization campaigns at the societal level to protect child rights, especially for disadvantaged children such as orphans and girls.