Researching the politics of development



The politics of social protection in Kenya: State capacity, political competition and social pension registration in Marsabit County

Download pdf

Working paper 166

Tahira Shariff Mohamed, Alesha Porisky and Patrick Mutinda Muthui

In 2017, the government of Kenya extended its provision of social assistance to the elderly through the transformation of the older persons cash transfer into a social pension which provides cash transfer to those aged 70 plus. This paper examines the process of beneficiary registration for the nationwide social pension, with an explicit focus on registration in Marsabit County in Northern Kenya. Engaging with the state-in-society framework, which emphasises the relational nature of state power and state capacity in registering beneficiaries, the paper explores the challenges and possibilities of registration of a nominal ‘universal’ pension in a marginal and peripheral county with limited state infrastructure. Pressure from the national government to register potential beneficiaries with little facilitation within one month preceding the highly contested 2017 national election forced local government officials in peripheral counties like Marsabit to work within the challenges and constraints of the social development office to register beneficiaries. We argue that the state prioritised the visibility of the registration process prior to a contentious election. In doing so, the registration was more successful in achieving visibility than universality in the registration process. Limited resources and weak state reach limited the state’s ability to register all eligible beneficiaries in the vast pastoral county of Marsabit.  The process of registration relied heavily on local leaders, including chiefs, clan elders and clan leaders, to overcome human resource constraints, potentially throwing into question the transparency of the process. To make this argument, we examine the social pension registration process in 2017 in Marsabit County. We utilise qualitative data collected across six months in 2018, including key informant interviews and focus group discussions with government officials, community leaders, politicians and beneficiaries. In making this argument, we engage with ongoing debates on universal versus targeting social protection programmes, highlighting the challenges of registration in a peripheral county in Kenya, with a high percentage of pastoral populations.