Safety Nets vs Economic Empowerment

Michael Stephens | May 21, 2013

There are important changes in how many developing countries are approaching the problem of poverty. Specifically in the area of “social protection” policy — policies intended to prevent or alleviate income insecurity and poverty — these changes are reflected in attempts to move beyond one-off interventions and “safety nets” to policies designed to address some of the underlying problems causing economic vulnerability in the first place.

In a new policy brief, developed with support from the United Nations Development Programme, Rania Antonopoulos considers how women’s economic empowerment can be advanced in the context of this evolution in social protection policy.  She zeroes in on the ways in which social protection policies, while addressing income gaps, also shape women’s opportunities through the manner in which these programs “see” or “position” women (whether intentionally or not).  To explain how this “positioning” works, she points to three different policies for addressing food insecurity (all targeted at women): cash transfers, free delivery of food staples, and access to land plus subsidized seed and fertilizer.  While all these interventions are aimed at reducing food insecurity, Antonopoulos observes that “there are stark differences between them in terms of the process through which deprivation is addressed, and from a gender perspective, differences in the (implicitly) assigned positioning of the beneficiary”:

The first addresses income poverty by enabling women to participate in the economy as consumers, which they otherwise cannot do on their own. The second, in the case of free rationed food, allocates food directly to those deserving of support because of their destitute status and inability to cope. The third approach addresses the income gap through means that enable the beneficiary to engage in the economy as a producer.While all three reduce an identified deprivation, the last one acknowledges it as an outcome of social relations of exclusion in production (i.e., women farmers do not have access to necessary agricultural inputs and support systems) that often underpin people’s experiences of chronic poverty and vulnerability.

While Antonopoulos stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that follows from these observations, these “positioning” dynamics should inform program design:  social protection instruments can reinforce gender inequalities, or leave them untouched, but they also offer the potential to help promote women’s roles as active participants in economic life.

Antonopoulos devotes a fair amount of the brief to discussing a pair of policies currently in use in the developing world — conditional cash transfers (CCTs) and employment guarantee programs (EGPs) — and sketches out the areas in which gender equality can be advanced through program redesign.  CCTs, increasingly popular in Latin America, offer a cash stipend to primary caretakers on condition that, for instance, said caretakers offer proof that their children are attending school and receiving regular medical checkups. EGPs are relatively new (examples can be found in both South Africa’s Expanded Public Works Programme and India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).  They offer a paying job in a public project for a specified period of time to low-skilled workers who cannot otherwise find employment.  Antonopoulos looks at the ways in which EGPs can be designed so as to not only cover income gaps but also tackle some of the disparities women face in the labor market:  everything from recognizing and even alleviating women’s unpaid work burdens to avoiding reinforcing women’s exclusion from certain occupational categories.

Antonopoulos also takes on arguments surrounding the question of whether low-income countries can afford to devote an expanding percentage of GDP to social protection spending — pointing out that these arguments often ignore the large costs of not investing in effective social protection policies.

The policy brief, which can be downloaded here, is also accompanied by a background working paper.

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