The Political Economy of Social Protection in Africa: Political Survival Strategies in the Context of Transnational Advocacy

Tom Lavers, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester

Nairobi, Kenya, Africa, January 2007. Photo by Joseph Sohm for Shutterstock

The last twenty years have seen growing efforts to promote social protection by global, regional and national actors.1 In developing countries, where informal labour markets predominate and extreme poverty remains a serious challenge, these efforts have focused on social transfers to reduce poverty. The United Nations’ Social Protection Floor Initiative launched in 2009, the International Labour Organization’s Recommendation 202 on National Social Protection Floors in 2012, the African Union’s 2009 Social Policy Framework, and the Sustainable Development Goals all require governments to expand provision. In some cases, governments have rapidly moved to adopt and expand new programmes, while in others the principle of providing social transfers has been fiercely resisted by political elites. The challenge therefore is to understand why governments have responded in diverse ways, what the drivers of adoption and expansion are, and what implications this has for the institutionalisation of social protection. Here we conceptualise institutionalisation as the process by which national governments integrate social protection into national strategies and legislation and take responsibility for financing and implementing programmes.

This note draws on a research project that compares and contrasts eight country case studies (Lavers and Hickey 2021): Ethiopia (Lavers 2019a), Ghana (Abdulai 2020), Kenya (Wanyama and McCord 2017), Mozambique (Buur and Salimo 2018), Rwanda (Lavers 2019b), Tanzania (Jacob and Pedersen 2018), Uganda (Hickey and Bukenya 2019) and Zambia (Pruce and Hickey 2019), each of which applies a process tracing methodology to examine social policy-making over a period of several years.

Main Arguments

We conceptualise social transfers as one tool within the broader political survival strategies employed by ruling elites to maintain power (Migdal 2001). In the context of constrained state resources and growing political competition, donor willingness to help finance social transfer programmes offers a potentially valuable resource. While donors pursue their own organisational priorities, national political elites can take advantage of these resource flows, utilising the international sphere to maintain domestic power (Bayart 2000, Whitfield 2009). Despite donor pressure to expand social transfers, it is notable that ideological opposition to “state handouts” is widespread across Africa (as in many other regions). We argue that it is only when donors form coherent policy coalitions with politicians and bureaucrats domestically, and where the social transfer programmes advocated by these coalitions align with the political survival strategies of elites, that institutionalisation occurs. Depending on the context, we argue that these survival strategies may entail winning elections, for which the visible distribution of social transfers is seen as valuable, or addressing distributional crises, perceived as threats to dominant party rule.

The influence of donors on social protection in Africa is clear. That said, and despite some claims in the literature, donor influence is never sufficient alone to drive social protection institutionalisation. Indeed, the Uganda case highlights that, in the absence of the key domestic political factors discussed below, intense donor pressure to expand social transfers has been insufficient to drive meaningful steps towards institutionalisation. Donors are important in each of our case studies where they are able to form coherent policy coalitions with key domestic political actors, not just providing a link to donor finance, but also framing policy ideas in ways that present social transfers as a plausible solution to the challenges politicians face. In our set of cases, the political challenges governments face can be divided in two broad groupings: political competition and distributional crises.

Our sample contains three countries in which electoral competition has been highly competitive over the last twenty years (Ghana, Kenya and Zambia), as well as one in which support for a dominant party has eroded over time, resulting in a highly competitive election (Tanzania in 2015). These four cases share considerable similarities. In each case, social transfer programmes began as donor-designed and funded pilots, which initially enjoyed little government support. Latterly, however, initial government concerns about the dangers of dependency resulting from social transfer distribution were overcome as politicians began to see potential political advantage in social transfers. Expansion of social transfer schemes to new districts and broader sections of the population has been closely linked to the electoral cycle and politicians have sought to publicly associate themselves with the programmes and gain credit for them in each case.

In another three cases, electoral competition offers little to no explanation for the expansion of social transfer schemes. In Ethiopia, Mozambique and Rwanda the same party has been in power for twenty-five years or more, and little political opposition, let alone competition, is tolerated. In each case, albeit to varying degrees, these dominant ruling coalitions have sought to build popular legitimacy through projects of national development. However, for the most part, the objective has been to address poverty and underdevelopment through agricultural productivity growth, economic growth and the provision of employment, rather than social transfers. In each of Ethiopia, Mozambique and Rwanda, significant progress regarding the institutionalisation of social transfers only followed when the dominant ruling coalition felt threatened by a serious distributional crisis: a food crisis and party split in Ethiopia; a crisis of poverty reduction and ruling party legitimacy in Rwanda; and the withdrawal of subsidies and urban riots in Mozambique. While the main impetus for policy adoption came from domestic political concerns, transnational policy coalitions were again important in framing social protection as a viable solution to the problems at hand, albeit that policy ideas were adapted to fit local political requirements.

These findings thereby enable us to make two main contributions to the existing literature. First, we question the argument—common in the literature—that donors are solely responsible for the spread of social transfers in sub-Saharan Africa and show that progress results from the intersection of transnational and domestic politics. Our focus on institutionalisation demonstrates that adoption, which is often donor-driven, is only one moment in a longer process and not necessarily the most important. Indeed, there is no case amongst those covered here in which donor influence and transnational ideas alone have been enough to drive institutionalisation. Second, we provide a more nuanced account of the role of democratisation as a driver of social transfers. Elections have clearly been important in some cases. Yet, elections have been insufficient on their own, with transnational policy coalitions playing key roles in framing social transfers as viable policy options. Furthermore, there is a distinct, uncompetitive pathway to the institutionalisation of social transfer programmes where electoral pressures have been irrelevant to date. In these cases, elite perceptions of distributional crises, to which social transfers seemed to present a plausible solution, was a far more significant driver.

Implications for the Welfare State and Social Contract

These findings are of great relevance to the possibility of the emergence of a welfare state or social contract. First, while the expansion of social transfers described above is noteworthy, it should be emphasised that progress remains modest. “Social protection” in these countries is primarily understood in terms of small programmes targeting the extreme poor rather than anything that could be realistically described as a welfare state. Moreover, none of the programmes are grounded in legislation and, as such, are potentially vulnerable to future erosion and cuts.

Second, the political impetus for expansion has thus far consisted of top-down efforts by politicians anticipating political advantage, with an almost complete absence of bottom-up demands from societal groups for expansion. There is a common perception amongst politicians that withdrawal of social transfer schemes would be politically problematic for incumbents, but it is unclear if that is actually the case. In any case, without a clear political constituency that supports the expansion and consolidation of social transfers, these programmes face an uncertain future.

Third, this is even more the case since this political vulnerability is reinforced by fiscal vulnerability. Most of the schemes discussed above continue to receive some support from donors—whether direct project funding or general budget support conditional on continued expansion of social protection. Yet, donor support is unreliable and given the political doubts noted above, it is unclear whether governments would step in to fund programmes, were donors to withdraw.

Fourth, discussion of social protection in terms of rights—surely a central requirement of any social contract—is largely absent in all of the case studies. In Ethiopia and Rwanda, while there is undoubtedly commitment to national development amongst the political elite, social protection is seen primarily as a means of overcoming short-term problems, with success seen in terms of poverty eradication and therefore the end of the programme itself. On the other hand, in the cases of Ghana and Kenya, commitment to social transfers is largely based on the potential of the visible distribution of cash transfers to highlight politicians’ benevolence and largesse, sometimes with implied contingency of political support. Again, this is a far cry from a social contract underpinned by rights.

Despite these concerns, there are reasons why we should not be overly pessimistic. While many programmes have modest political support and effective provision is undermined by political ambitions, this is hardly exceptional. At earlier points in time similar accusations could well have been made about social protection in most other parts of the world. A problematic starting point does not necessarily prevent future expansion and consolidation. Indeed, at the very least, the key domestic political drivers identified above (electoral competition, distributional crises) are not going to disappear any time soon and may well drive further expansion. In addition, in several countries cash transfers have become something of a valence issue, with competing parties in Ghana and Kenya all promising future expansion. Furthermore, there is some indication that competitive electoral politics can move beyond politicised distribution of resources towards increasingly comprehensive provision and even universalism. Kenya’s recent decision to launch a universal old age pension—undoubtedly linked to electoral calculations—is a case in point.


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Cover image: Nairobi, Kenya, Africa, January 2007. Photo by Joseph Sohm for Shutterstock

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