Published on Africa Can End Poverty

The politics of safety nets: Don’t shy away

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If you have ever brought up politics in a technical meeting on safety nets, or on social policy in general, you might have observed one or all of the following reactions: sighs, eye rolls, forced laughs, desperate looks to the door. A few awkward minutes may ensue, filled with polished remarks only accessible to experts in double-entendre. Then you might have had follow-up backroom discussions in hushed tones. Then maybe heard a few loud rants on how politics will never change and the world would be better off if it was left to technical experts.

Yet, as Chapter 3 of the new book, “Realizing the Full Potential of Social Safety Nets”  argues, openly discussing the politics of safety nets is critical (program sustainability depends on it), it is OK (you are not selling your soul), and a lot can be done to leverage politics.

Why is it critical? Because a beautifully designed social program will never see the light of the day if it doesn’t have political traction in the country. Or will get shut down at the first opportunity. And that doesn’t do any good to the populations that need it.

Why is it OK to discuss the politics of social policy? Here, the chapter tries to clear a confusion between two very different forms of politicization: electoral accountability and clientelism. On the one hand, a functioning competitive democracy depends on the aspiration of politicians to reap electoral benefit by enacting programs that enhance the welfare of their constituencies. A government tries to expand safety net coverage to increase its chances in the next election? There is nothing wrong with that.
On the other hand, ethical issues arise when politicization entails clientelism or favoritism, as they may represent a breach in equal access of citizens to public benefits, or an attempt to distort the electoral process. Those temptations surely exist and need to be combatted, but they will be better contained if an open conversation can take place on the healthy side of electoral accountability.

Finally, what can be done? First, public opinion and politics do change. Commonly-held beliefs and preferences shift as shocks hit, economic conditions evolve, evidence becomes available. Think of how post-disaster humanitarian assistance often opened pathways to sustained social assistance in countries that never displayed high preferences for redistribution. Or how consumption support is increasingly acknowledged as an investment in productive capacity of recipients, instead of merely being thought of as a hand-out.

Second, program parameters can be adjusted to shift the politics of social programs. Targeting, co-responsibilities, exit strategies, accompanying measures can all be tailored to the preferences of policymakers or elected representatives. The job of program designers is then to ensure a proper balance between technical requirements, necessary for impact, and political tweaks, needed for sustainability.

Third, politics and social policy are a two-way street. Safety nets are shown to empower the poor, raise their expectations and appreciation for state-provided programs, and increase their political participation. Relations between local and national politicians change when social programs extend their outreach. And programs can strengthen those political feedback loops from constituents or local actors, through adequate delivery and social accountability mechanisms.

Read this chapter – and the next time politics comes up in a technical meeting, relax… and have the conversation.

This blog post is based on “Recognizing and Leveraging Politics to Expand and Sustain Social Safety Nets,” Chapter 3 of the 2018 regional study “Realizing the Full Potential of Social Safety Nets in Africa.” Blogs based on previous chapters include:

Chapter 1 Blog: Social safety nets in Africa: Everywhere and growing, but going where?
Chapter 2 Blog: Safety nets boost consumption levels of the poorest across Africa  


Thomas Bossuroy

World Bank Sr. Economist

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