Social protection and food security: Two sides of the same coin?

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by Alexandra Ilic

On the 19th of March, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development held a conference at the Palais Nations to discuss social protection and food security issues. The speaker for the event, Stephen Devereux, is a development economist, working on food security and social protection, in particular in Africa. He works at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Susex. For more informations, please visit: http://www.unrisd.org/80256B3C005BD6AB/(httpEvents)/4EB3064CBBFF69C8C1257B1D0034F133?OpenDocument

This conference was largely based on the report by the high level panel of experts on food security and nutrition (June 2012). Stephen Devereux was a team leader for this report. The report, written by the Committee of World Food Security, was an attempt to put food security and social protection together.

In his introduction, Mr Devereux defined social protection for food security. It is a range of policy instruments that address poverty and vulnerability through social assistance (cash transfers or food aid), social insurance (unemployment benefits) and social inclusion (legislation on the human right to food).

In contrast, food insecurity is the inability to secure an adequate diet today, and the risk of being unable to do so in the future.

The speaker premised that social protection and social security are used as equal terms, although there is much debate about the limits of each term.

Mr Devereux chose to present two instruments in detail: public works programs and conditional cash transfers. Although there are ten instruments in the report, he decided to focus on those two because those two are controversial.

Public works programs 

Temporary employment is created to respond to poverty and food insecurity which arise due to unemployment or under-employment.

There is a twin-track approach which is advocated quite strongly in the report. On the one hand, they support short-term food security by giving people cash wages or food rations in the short run. At the same time, the work that people are doing in these programs is meant to generate investment assets, reducing chronic food insecurity as part of the programs’ long-term goals.

Conditional cash transfers (CCTs)

This involves giving cash to poor people, usually to mothers, but only in certain conditions.

There are two objectives of this approach. The first is to reduce short-term food insecurity and, the second, is to invest in children’s human capital. This would break long-term intergenerational transmission of malnutrition and poverty. This objective is ambitious and so far has little evidence to support it since this approach has only been in operation for 20 years, which is not a whole generation. We need to see how the situation would have evolved when the children of today grow up.

However, there are some controversies about this instrument. First, one might wonder if it is enough to give cash to families to enable them to send their children to school and to educate them. Secondly, there is the issue of rights. Does it make sense to attach conditions to social transfers? If we believe in a right to social security and social protection, we should not attach any conditions to the cash transfers to ensure that people are behaving the way we expect them to. Hence, there is a question about ethics in the application of conditionality with cash transfers. Finally, cash transfers are vulnerable to food price seasonality and inflation.

Social protections are very attractive in theory. However, when one looks at the instruments one by one, there are a lot of controversies in their application. There are paradoxes. In practice, they can be badly implemented. There is no single instrument either. Instead there is a perceived need to have a series of complementary interventions and a need to link them to other sectors.

Besides, accountability mechanisms are crucial for effective implementation: at the national level, there should be a social contract; and on programme level, there should be some complaints mechanisms where, for instance, people can complain if they have been excluded from the programs.

Social protections system

A very important aspect of these programs is graduation. People that are on a program should not stay in that program indefinitely; they have to exit the program. The risk not to graduate is to have a permanent program which is expensive.

The second point is the focus on rights based approaches. There are a lot of examples, but they are not from the poorest countries. In Brazil, adequate food is a right in the Constitution. In India, there is a whole series of rights such as, for example, the National Food Security Bill and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). So there exist instances of rights-based approach, but the issue here is in their implementation. In South Africa, there are seven social grants underpinned by legislation. These grants are extended from 7 to 18 years. Ethiopia has a lot of food security programs going but these are not rights-based programs.

The last issue is social protection floors. All member states are obliged to implement social protection floors. The objective is to deliver two guarantees: basic income security throughout the life cycle, and universal access to healthcare. In the report, the social protection floors were reviewed and it was concluded that income security is necessary, but not sufficient for food security.

Recommendations for Member States

Stephen Devereux concluded by presenting the following recommendations for Member States.

  1. Every country should put in place a social protection system that contributes to the right to adequate food for all.
  2. Social protection systems should follow a “twin-track” strategy – provide short-term assistance while guaranteeing long-term livelihood for the poor.
  3. Social protection must address vulnerability to poverty and hunger, eg. demand driven; scalable (scales up rapidly when required)
  4. Social protection for food security should be underpinned by the human rights to food and social protection, eg. With a framework law, like they have in Brazil, and with accountability mechanisms.
  5. Social protection for food security should support agricultural livelihoods directly because a large proportion of the world’s food insecure people earn their living from agriculture.
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