Researching the politics of development



Researching the political economy of social protection in Africa

30 March 2015
By Tom Lavers
When and why do states take a direct interest in the welfare of their populations? What types of state introduce social policies and which ones are capable of delivering on these commitments?
Research on the politics of social policy in Europe, the US, Latin America and East Asia has already provided a wide range of answers—highlighting, for example, the importance of the political mobilisation of the left, the structure of political institutions, the degree of ethnic diversity and systems of patronage.
When it comes to African countries, however, there has to date been little consideration of the politics underpinning the rapidly growing number of social protection programmes. Instead, debates have tended to focus on the ‘technical’ aspects of social protection: the impact of programmes on poverty; the fiscal space for social protection; or assessments of the value for money of policies.

Social policy is inherently political

The assumption underlying this debate appears to be that if technical assessments can identify ‘what works’ and show that these policies are affordable, then policymakers in African governments will line up to follow the latest policy recommendations.
Solid evidence regarding the impacts of programmes can certainly be an important factor in policymaking. But to assume that evidence is the sole influence on decision making would be naïve in the extreme. Existing research in other world regions has shown that social policy is an inherently political phenomenon that both reflects and constitutes the relationship between a state and its citizens. There is no reason to think that Africa should be an exception in this regard.
Beyond this broad insight that politics matters, the question remains, however, as to which specific combinations of political factors are conducive to the adoption and implementation of social protection programmes in African countries. Do governments implement social protection programmes based on an ideological commitment to progress among ruling elites? Due to pressure from foreign donors? As a result of electoral pressures? Or based on the political calculations of ruling elites about the best means of maintaining legitimacy and stability? A new ESID project aims to answer these questions.

Understanding the politics of social protection: Interests and ideas

This project builds on the ‘political settlements’ framework that regards the distribution of resources—including through social policies—as the outcome of competition between contending social groups.
This framework is highly relevant to a focus on social protection, given its overlap with some existing theories of welfare state development, notably the work of Evelyne Huber and John Stephens, and its potential to translate these insights from the democratic politics of advanced economies to the contexts of contemporary African countries. The political settlements approach also allows us to go beyond narrow assessments of individual policies to set social protection in broader context; how social protection relates to other policies that seek to redistribute resources in society and the underlying distribution of power.
That said, however, existing political settlements frameworks must be extended in certain respects to provide insights into the political economy of social protection. First, it is essential to acknowledge the important role that transnational actors—notably multilateral and bilateral donors—play in promoting and, indeed, financing social protection policies across Africa. Second, social protection is highly ideological, whether concerning debates about the ‘right’ role for the state in social provisioning, the definition of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor or common fears about creating ‘welfare dependency’.
As such, a full understanding of the politics of social protection must incorporate a focus on the political role of ideas as well as interest groups. A new ESID working paper outlines the theoretical and methodological approach taken in this research project.
The project will examine two policy areas—social assistance and health insurance—across five countries—Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia. These countries were selected to provide both variation in the type of political system and progress in social protection. The project will therefore examine several high-profile apparent success stories that are increasingly held up as models for other countries to follow. These include: Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), which provides support for some 8 million chronically food-insecure people; and Rwanda’s mutuelles de santé—a form of community-based health insurance which is exceptional in Africa, having achieved almost universal health insurance coverage.

More than just food security: Ethiopia’s PSNP

The case of the PSNP is illustrative. It would certainly appear that the original idea for the medium-term approach of the PSNP originated with Ethiopia’s foreign donors and, to date, the programme has been entirely funded by these donors. As such, one might easily conclude that the programme is donor driven.
Yet, reports on the PSNP frequently also note the strong government ownership of the programme, which has proven essential to the quick roll out and effective implementation—through state structures—of the programme. At present, there is no clear explanation as to why this should be the case. The current Ethiopian government has long demonstrated its commitment to poverty reduction and a particular developmental vision, even if this is sometimes pursued at the cost of political rights. But is this commitment to social and economic progress a sufficient explanation?
Ongoing research on the PSNP examines both how the programme fits within the government’s ‘developmental state model’ and what role the PSNP plays within Ethiopia’s political settlement. For example, the government’s 2002 foreign policy clearly argues that food insecurity is a source of ‘national humiliation and shame’ that, along with other development challenges, constitutes a threat to ‘national survival’.
For the government, therefore, it would seem that food security, and consequently the PSNP, is not just a question of social provisioning, but an issue of national security that is central to the political settlement. Furthermore, the current government has long framed rapid urban migration, in the absence of large-scale job creation, as a source of instability that could lead to what the former Prime Minister once called a ‘social explosion’.
My previous research has shown that some local government officials in Tigray have interpreted the PSNP in line with this concern about migration; the PSNP is seen as a means of keeping people in rural areas and thereby slowing down the pace of urbanisation.
This new ESID project will ask whether this reflects the intentions of central government policymakers or whether it is merely the interpretation of individual local government officials. Certainly, the PSNP—like social programmes elsewhere—is far more than a technical solution to a food insecurity problem; it is a policy that is closely linked to the developmental and political goals of the government.

Social protection: from global commitments to national policies and politics

Surging interest in social protection has been reflected in the formulation of social protection strategies by numerous UN agencies, the UN-wide Social Protection Floors Initiative and the ILO’s recommendation 202 on national social protection floors. There is also a proposal to include social protection in the Sustainable Development Goals—due to be finalised this year—either as a stand-alone goal or as targets in other goals.
The question remains, however, how to translate these global commitments and initiatives into the adoption and implementation of social protection policies in particular national contexts. This project aims to provide policy-relevant findings that highlight: how different types of political settlement provide contrasting incentives for social protection; under what circumstances political settlements are open to ideational influence; and how advocacy strategies might be tailored to particular political contexts.