Published on Let's Talk Development

What’s new in social protection – January edition

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This column sets out a monthly selection of social protection materials that I found particularly interesting or helpful in illuminating a certain social protection issue. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but just to highlight and discuss some of the latest thinking and evidence on the matter.

Can a cash transfer bolster self-sufficiency? Yes it can, according to an NBER paper by Galama et al. The authors examine the Colombian Familias en Accion Urbano program and found that, 3 years into the intervention, household income increased by 10 times the amount of the government cash transfer, likely because of associated gains in formal employment. Households also report qualitative increases in life satisfaction and happiness.

But can safety nets generate ‘labor traps’? Bargu and Morgandi explore the labor supply incentives of the Polish ‘Family 500+’ program – an unconditional cash transfer targeting families with 2 or more children aged 0-17. They find that, especially among low-income households, the program’s generosity creates labor supply disincentives.

Is it possible for conditional cash transfers (CCTs) to enhance nutrition in South Asia? A new article by Raghunathan et al evaluates the effectiveness of Odisha’s Mamata CCT scheme in India. Results show that receipt of CCT payments is associated with a 5 percentage points (pp) increase in the likelihood of receiving antenatal services, a 10 pp increase in the probability of receiving iron-folic acid tablets, and a decline of 0.84 on the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale.

Let’s turn to nutrition in Africa. A new NBER paper by Ravallion, Brown and van de Walle, studies the effectiveness of household targeting based on nutritional status of women and children. Based on data from 30 African countries, they show that roughly three-quarters of underweight women and undernourished children are not found in the poorest 20% of households, and around half are not found in the poorest 40%. They conclude that, in such contexts, interventions will either require more individualized intra-household information or would need to be nearly-universal in coverage.

From nutrition to food security: Bhalla et al evaluate the impact of the Zimbabwe Harmonized Social Cash Transfer program and found 13 pp increase in the number of households consuming fruits, 16 pp increase for pulses and legumes, 13 pp for dairy, 15 pp for fats, and 6 pp for non-alcoholic beverages and condiments. However, the program had no impact on domestic food consumption (likely reflecting changing food purchase habits away from home).

… and from food security to health: Pega et al. have an 180-page, systematic Cochrane review of the impacts of unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) on health in low and middle-income countries. The review covered 21 studies (16 experimental and 5 non-experimental ones) and concluded that UCTs improve some select health outcomes (i.e. the likelihood of having had any illness, the likelihood of having secure access to food, and diet diversity), one social determinant of health (i.e. the likelihood of attending school), and healthcare expenditure.

More massive reviews: in a rich working paper, Ralston, Andrews and Hsiao examine the empirical results from impact evaluations on social assistance in Africa – I love how they structured the evidence around quantifiable outcomes for equity, resilience opportunity (figures on p.33-38 are brilliant).

How do cash transfers work for indigenous populations? Baucet et al. studied the effects of the national CCT program in Bolivia (Bono Juancito Pinto) on participating children in the Amazon. Results indicate that the most marginalized group (Tsimane’) completed 30% fewer grades of schooling than other children. The most likely mechanism at play seems that returns to formal schooling are lower for the Tsimane’ due to their autarkic, self-sufficient livelihoods. The authors recommended increasing transfer size, adapt program curriculums, or lift conditionalities.

An usual comparator for CCTs: bicycles. An AEJ article by Muralidharan and Prakash evaluate a program in Bihar aimed to reduce the gender gap in secondary school enrollment by providing girls with a bicycle to improve access to school. The program increased girls’ age-appropriate enrollment in secondary school by 32% and reduced the corresponding gender gap by 40. The authors conclude that the initiative was more cost effective at increasing girls’ secondary school enrollment than CCTs. Bonus on gender: in a World Development paper on Uruguay, Bergolo and Galvan show that cash-receiving women take greater perceived responsibility for decisions in specific spheres of household expenditures.

Do people share their cash transfers? In 2016-2017, Save the Children implemented a project targeting over 10,000 households in Somalia with monthly cash transfers using mobile phones: results from a report by Radice and Hussein show that because of the program, there was a 24% increase in mobile phones and mobile money accounts. Yet, 80% of respondents felt that mobile money discouraged the sharing of cash. Conversely, a paper by Walker presents a number of findings on the impacts of cash transfers on formal and informal taxation in Kenya – among them, it was interesting to see that cash recipients share about 25% more than comparable non-recipients.

Cash transfers in crisis contexts. There are a growing number of agencies involved in the delivery of cash in humanitarian contexts, sometimes resulting in fragmentation of approaches. A joint DFID-ECHO $85M facility for cash transfers in Lebanon attempted to streamline the process by providing cash transfer to a single agency as opposed to multiple ones. A review by Bailey and Harvey showed that feedback from the field ranged from ‘a logical way to take forward Grand Bargain commitments’ to ‘an attempt by donors to try to force change in ways that undermined the spirit of partnership’.

A comprehensive review on shock-responsive social protection is out. A 104-page report by O’Brien et al sets out findings and 12 recommendations informed by s rich set of case studies carried out over the past 3 years (e.g., see Pakistan, Mali, Philippines, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Sahel). Some extra resources: check out the slide deck from the report e-launch and a video on how to integrate social protection, disaster risk management, and humanitarian assistance.
p.s. the papers in this column draw from a wider weekly newsletter – just drop me an email if you're interested in receiving it (


Ugo Gentilini

Global Lead for Social Assistance, World Bank

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