Can social protection and labour market programmes contribute to social inclusion?

This was the question asked by a three-year research project, led by ODI, in collaboration with partners in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.  

The project investigated this question in terms of whether programmes can enhance livelihood opportunities, food security, strengthen community and social relations and strengthen state-society relations for socially excluded individuals.  Largely the findings were positive, finding that all the programmes below have, to some extent, strengthened social relations, including social participation and social networks.  However, context and the specifics of programme design can make a real difference to the degree of change experienced.  Some reasons why programmes did not have as wide-ranging impact as may have been hoped include:

  • The small size of Nepal’s child grant was a key reason why its impacts across all the dimensions investigated were limited.
  • The findings from BRAC’s training for young women at adolescent reading centres in Afghanistan highlighted the importance of matching training-opportunities both with cultural norms (particularly in contexts where women’s movement is restricted) and also with further input and capital to enable them to take advantage of opportunities to set-up a business (e.g. to purchase a sewing machine; the programme currently does not give grants).  
  • The Chars Livelihoods Programme and Vulnerable Group Development in Bangladesh both improved food security and increased livelihoods opportunities.  However, neither is a panacea for social inclusion and have limitations in terms of tackling the broader structural causes of exclusion over the short-term. 
  • Health Insurance in India, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) scheme, reduced household spending on in-patient health care.  However, its impacts are lessened by the fact that it does not cover all the costs of health expenditure, meaning households still face out-of-pocket payments.  This is compounded by the fact that inadequate outreach activities mean that individuals of scheduled castes report to receiving less information about enrolment and the hospitals covered by the scheme than the rest of the population. 

The workshop on the 28th April 2014 got us thinking about a range of issues.  These included what should the scope of a social protection programme be?  Should it just encompass doing a few things, implementing them well and implementing at scale? To-date there has perhaps been too much tinkering-around with programmes, adding elements on here and there (such as a microfinance component or a market development aspect), rather than letting the interventions, as originally designed, running their course for a sufficient period of time. 

Another area of debate was around the ambitions of social protection and the need to be realistic about what can be achieved within a certain period of time.  When considering this, a framework which draws a link from social exclusion to social inclusion through social protection is perhaps the wrong way to think about things.  It is not necessarily that the poorest people are excluded, but rather that they are adversely included in society – for instance as agricultural wage labourers bonded to a particular land-owning patron meaning that they receive extremely low wages.  Geof Wood suggested that an alternative way of conceptualising the outcomes of social protection would be that individuals are able to increase their autonomous security (or have greater control over their lives, for instance in terms of where to sell their labour). 

Financing social protection was another focus of discussion – in particular what is the role of aid relative to domestic expenditure? Aid-funded social protection will not be the future in middle-income countries, but in many of the poorest countries it is likely that aid will remain an important source of finance for the foreseeable future. Certainly, strengthening social protection systems (rather than building them, for in many countries there is already something in-place) is not something which will happen quickly in many countries – rather it will take generations.  In the short term this will require regular and predictable aid as well as strengthening systems for domestic revenue collection and spending in the long-term.