Effective States and Inclusive Development

Social protection – Tool for poverty reduction or political strategy?

This project analyses the political drivers of the adoption and implementation of two forms of social protection – social assistance, including cash transfers and public works, and health insurance.

The nature of the political settlement emerges as a central factor in shaping capacity and commitment to social protection. Comparative analysis shows a clear divergence between the dominant coalitions and the other cases.

Dominant coalitions, where power is relatively centralised within a small group of elites, have proved to have been the most committed and capable at adopting and implementing social protection in our cases. Dominant coalitions have been motivated by broad concerns about political legitimacy, as well as mitigating specific threats to the ruling coalition that originate in distributional crises. Implementation in dominant coalitions is driven by top-down performance targets that are rigorously and sometimes coercively enforced. Meeting these targets is both a source of prestige and a route to promotion/demotion. This does not necessarily translate into effectiveness, however. State capacity is sometimes used to rigidly implement policies and pursue targets, however unsuited they may be to local conditions, and administrators often focus on meeting the easiest, most visible targets.
In contrast, the main motivation for political elites in the other cases has been to secure local-level political support in the context of lower-level shifts, such as competitive pressures in the political settlement. Social assistance programmes in these cases appear vulnerable to political influence, and implementation is frequently driven by local-level political incentives, delivering visible benefits to secure support.

In terms of elite commitment, there appears to be a divergence between commitment to social assistance and to health insurance. The strongest cases of elite commitment to social assistance derive from perceived threats to the political settlement, to which social protection is seen as a potential solution. In contrast, elite commitment to expanding health insurance is linked to long-term thinking enabled by the stable nature of the political settlement and ideological commitments.

Main factors influencing commitment to social assistance:

1. Type of political settlement and, in particular, the presence of a dominant coalition settlement.

2. Whether the ruling coalition has a programmatic agenda focused on development and poverty reduction.

3. The presence of a coherent policy coalition, comprising both government and development partners.

4. A distributional crisis that constitutes a threat to the prevailing political settlement.

5. Bottom-up pressures for expansion of social assistance from civil society and MPs.

The first three of these also influence commitment to health insurance, but factors 6 and 7 are different:

6. The presence of powerful capitalists with close ties to key figures within the ruling coalition.

7. The use of free-to-access healthcare as a competing form of rent distribution.

Our case studies show that political settlements analysis can provide valuable insights into the incentives to adopt and implement social protection. But the studies also highlight the limitations of interest-based explanations alone. Interests are not stable, but are shaped by ideas, so analysis of ideas and the ‘ideational fit / alignment’ between different levels of ideas is essential. Expansion of social protection has been fastest where it is aligned with the elites’ paradigmatic and normative ideas around state responsibility and development. Paradigmatic ideas are necessarily and closely entwined with the character of the political settlement, in that they are perceived as central to its legitimacy and stability. Elites can perceive that a programme incorporating some significant element of social protection has the potential to address threats to regime legitimacy. We reframe commitment to social protection as a political strategy for maintaining regime stability, legitimacy and survival, rather than as a means of achieving development per se. It is specifically the outcome of the interaction between political interests and ideas.

The policy implication of this is that there is little alternative to aligning advocacy strategies with the dominant interests and ideas within particular types of political settlement.