Communitarian Versus Individual Norms. Do Conflicting Norms Threaten the Sustainability of Social Protection Programmes in Africa?

Marianne S. Ulriksen, University of Southern Denmark

Morogoro Town. Copyright: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, Wikimedia Commons

This brief paper reflects on findings in two country studies conducted by the author and colleagues. One country, Tanzania, is a low-income East African country, which is highly donor dependent and has low levels of social protection spending. In a new publication (Ulriksen 2019), I explore how and why the Tanzanian government was persuaded by the World Bank and a domestic implementing agency (TASAF) to introduce a nation-wide social protection programme targeting the poorest 10% of the population. The programme, the Productive Social Safety Net (PSSN), was approved for implementation in 2012 and the agreement was that the Tanzanian government by 2020 would take over funding of the PSSN. Subsequent research in Tanzania with colleagues1 has followed the negotiations of the future design and funding of the PSSN between the government and international donors; this research highlights the government’s reluctance with parts of the PSSN, which can be traced to different social norm sets between the Tanzanian government and the international donors.

The other country, Botswana, is an upper-middle-income country in southern Africa, which is not highly donor dependent (although international donor agencies are still represented and fund programmes). Botswana has a long history of funding education and health services and although the country has several social protection programmes, the level of spending is relatively low for a country of Botswana’s level of economic wealth (Ulriksen 2012). With a colleague, I analyse international donor agencies’ attempts to influence the design of two child welfare programmes: an orphan care programme and the introduction of a child cash grant (Chinyoka and Ulriksen 2020). In the case of the former programme, the international agencies were able to persuade the government to change some aspects of the programme design, whereas in the latter case, the international agencies were unable to convince the government to introduce the programme at all. As in the case with Tanzania, the conflicting priorities of the Botswana government and international agencies reflect different norm sets with respect to the role, purposes and aims of social protection.

Thus, in this comparison of two quite different African countries I show how social norms in both cases are at odds with the dominating norms within international donor agencies, and I suggest that this may threaten the sustainability of social protection programmes. Social norms can be defined as informal rules and procedures that govern behaviour in groups and societies. Norms are shared understandings of the appropriate way of doing things and are therefore fundamental, if at times unconscious, guides to what is perceived to be the most suitable way to behave as a collective – including what should be the best approach to help the poor and needy through social protection policies.

The Limits of International Influence in Botswana

Social protection policies in Botswana are residual and family-orientated, their main components being workfare for the able-bodied and supplementary feeding schemes for designated vulnerable groups; only selected groups (e.g. orphans) who have ceased to be supported adequately by kin may receive some direct support by the state. The welfare policy regime in Botswana may be placed within a conservative ideology with its familial focus, although family should be understood in broader terms than the nuclear family – kin is a more fitting term. Kin is the primary unit of responsibility for caring and helping each other, the state only a last resort.

Although Botswana is not highly donor-dependent there are instances where international agencies have assisted and provided important support. One such situation was during the AIDS pandemic in the 1990s where Botswana was hit particularly hard. Following the AIDS pandemic, the Botswana government set up an orphan care programme, which international aid agencies supported. International agencies also sought to influence the programme’s design features but with limited success. For instance, the international agencies accepted the government’s narrow definition of orphans, which excluded many children otherwise defined as orphans by international standards and in neighbouring countries. In addition, the government insisted that the programme target families with children, not individual children, and that the provision was a food basket to be shared within the (extended) family. These features highlight an expectation of extended families to take care of kin and that state support, when required, has a familial focus.

In the 2010s, international agencies sought to promote the idea of a child support grant. Despite evidence of such programmes’ poverty-reducing effects, the government rejected the proposal. The argument was that “not every child requires government assistance and universalism will cause dependency and laziness which is against government policy that is encouraging graduation and self-reliance through participation in government funded poverty eradication self-help programmes” (Chinyoka and Ulriksen 2020, 259). Subsequently, international agencies proposed a family support grant (FSG). Although the FSG was to be a family-based poverty targeted programme resonating with the government’s preferences for kinship-based benefits, the proposed cash transfer contrasted with the preferred social assistance design of providing in-kind safety nets. The government mistrusted beneficiaries for their abuse of cash benefits, and consequently the proposal of a cash-based benefit met resistance. Moreover, it was considered that, if introduced, the grant would be more “permanent” than most of the safety nets and was likely to promote rather than discourage dependency, hence contrasting with the government’s principle of self-reliance.

The Haggling Over Social Protection Programme Design in Tanzania

As in Botswana, the term “self-reliance” is also key to the understanding of social responsibility in Tanzania. The Tanzanian leaders’ overall vision to address its development challenges prioritises growth and productivity. Key concepts in the government vision paper are community development, self-reliance, responsibility and hard work. Social protection policies are regarded as instruments to strengthen the agency of the poor and allow them to participate in markets. This ideational orientation has roots back to Nyerere’s socialist policy, Ujaama, where he, Tanzania’s first president and founding father, emphasised self-reliance and hard work as the roots of development.

Unlike in Botswana, international donor agencies were able to convince the government to introduce a social cash transfer programme (the PSSN). Although the main component of the PSSN is a conditional cash transfer, it also includes community involvement and participation in public works projects by benefiting households. International agencies arguably have stronger bargaining power in low-income Tanzania, particularly as they provide the vast bulk of funding for the PSSN. Still, as I argue elsewhere, international agencies were also able to persuade the government to commit to the PSSN by emphasising key aspects of the programme that sit well with the government’s development visions (Ulriksen 2019). Thus, in presenting the PSSN, international agencies highlighted conditionality and public works, thereby speaking to the central ideas of co-responsibility, self-reliance, production and hard work.

Nevertheless, the main component of the PSSN is a cash transfer to vulnerable households. The idea of giving “free money” sits uneasily with many in government. The previous president Magufuli (who passed away in March 2021) had a slogan: “hapa kazi tu” (roughly translated: here is only work) by which he emphasised that people should lift themselves out of poverty through entrepreneurship and hard work. Scepticism about the cash transfer component has also been evident in the public where the media has revealed stories of misuse of the cash benefits and of beneficiaries not been considered poor enough to be included in the programme. In discussions on possible revisions to the PSSN programme design, the government has been keen to prioritise public works and productive inclusion (i.e. training and coaching to enhance participants’ savings and productive activities) over the cash transfer element. In the end, the government and international agencies reached a compromise by which specific groups such as children, people with disabilities and the elderly continue to receive a cash transfer (if deemed poor enough), while households with so-called productive capacity will increasingly become part of the public works programme.

Conflicting Norms and Implications for Social Protection Expansion

Despite some differences, the cases of Botswana and Tanzania highlight some distinct similarities in the ideational approach to social protection policies. Self-reliance, co-responsibility, hard work and productive livelihoods are key terms. Underlying this are arguably social norms which place the extended family and community as the main units of social responsibility and care. Within this the state can play a supporting role but preferably in ways that encourage productivity and discourage dependency and laziness; cash transfers are regarded as more likely to promote the latter rather than the former.

The described social norms seem at odds with the norms underlying international agencies’ approach to social protection. The globally acclaimed social protection floor entails a rights-based approach within which the individual can claim rights towards the State. However, neither the individual nor the State are the central units of social responsibility and care in the cases of Tanzania and Botswana. Similarly, cash transfers are central to the social protection floor and a key strategy of many international development agencies. There are good reasons for this, including the proven poverty-reducing effects and the relative simplicity of providing cash transfers compared to more complicated community development projects. However, if national governments are opposed to cash transfers, the pertinent question is whether such programmes can be maintained in the long term? In Botswana, the government has largely defined its own social protection policies, which are not based on individual human rights, nor cash-centred. In Tanzania, the international agencies have more influence in defining a social protection programme that targets individuals with cash (although also including other components). However, given the existing scepticism among government officials it is uncertain whether a cash transfer programme will remain when Tanzania is to fully fund the programme from its own resources.


Chinyoka, Isaac and Marianne S. Ulriksen. 2020. “The Limits of the Influence of International Donors: Social Protection in Botswana”. In From Colonialism to International Aid: External Actors in Social Protection in the Global South , edited by C. Schmitt, pp. 245–271. Palgrave Macmillan. Available open access:

Ulriksen, Marianne S. 2012. “Welfare Policy Expansion in Botswana and Mauritius: Explaining the Causes of Different Welfare Regime Paths”. Comparative Political Studies 45(12): 1483–1509.

Ulriksen, Marianne S. 2019. “Pushing for Policy Innovation: The Framing of Social Protection Policies in Tanzania”. In The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa, edited by Sam Hickey, Tom Lavers, Miguel Nino-Zarazua and Jeremy Seekings, pp. 122–147. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available open access:


Cover image: Morogoro Town. Copyright: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

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