In a recent high level policy forum with Members of  Kenya’s National Assembly,  there was a heated debate  on which group deserves social assistance particularly in a country where about 50% of the population lives below the poverty line. Granted that the Members of Parliament represent different interests, it was interesting to note how all members were vouching for their constituency. Those who are elected on the platform for youth were adamant that since most youths in Kenya are not in employment, or do not have a source of income, they deserve to be on the programme. Those representing women were also very categorical that any form of social assistance should target women, since women bear the burden of raising families, including poor and vulnerable families. Those representing persons with disability also pushed for the need for a universal social protection scheme for persons with disability, owing to the double marginalization and systemic exclusion that has rendered many persons with disabilities poor and vulnerable.

This interesting discussion puts to question the criteria for selection of beneficiaries of social assistance programmes, as well as the need for awareness of what social protection entails. According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Social Protection refers to “public actions taken in response to levels of vulnerability, risk and deprivation, which are deemed socially unaccepted in a given society[1]”.  This definition intrinsically means that social protection should indeed be provided to those who face absolute deprivation, but it should also be extended to non-poor who face risks and shocks. The provision of social assistance by governments is often reached through a consensus on what constitutes the minimum unacceptable standard.

Every person has a right to social protection as enshrined in Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 22 guarantees the right to social security, while article 25 recognizes the right of everyone to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including … medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Some of these provisions have been domesticated in the Kenyan context. Article 43 (3) of the Constitution of Kenya requires the State to provide appropriate social security to persons who are unable to support themselves and their dependants. This means that every person qualifies for social protection including social security, health insurance and social assistance.

Since social assistance is used by many governments as a strategy to cushion its citizens against poverty and vulnerability, there has to be consensus on the point and level of interventions. Apart from understanding the policy priorities of a government, the poverty profile of a country provides evidence to support the justification of the choice of the social transfer instrument. The poverty profile provides a spatial picture of poverty, deprivation and vulnerability in a country. The poverty profile is a key step in understanding the design of social assistance programmes. There are several layers of poverty, all requiring different forms of interventions. Extreme poverty is associated with persons living below 1.25 USD per day, severe poverty refers to those who live on 0.70 USD per day, and chronic poverty   refers to extreme poverty that persists over the years or a lifetime, and is often transmitted intergenerationally. Therefore a country determines which level is appropriate for intervention based on resources. However in countries where there is a large number of the population in poverty, it becomes difficult to determine who deserves to be on a social assistance programme. With limited resources in most African countries the tendency is to intervene at the level of extreme and chronic poverty. Most programmes also use a targeting mechanism as an effort to make sure that the limited resources reach those who need it most.

Coming back to the different groups who deserve social protection, it is important to note that everyone has a right to social protection, to cushion them from the risks and shocks including unemployment, poverty, floods, drought among others. Vulnerability and risks occur across the lifecycle, hence the need to develop programmes that respond to the different needs as shown below.

Risks across the life cycle

In an ideal situation social protection programmes should be designed to address the risks across the lifecycle. However due to limited resources, many countries often respond to the needs of the chronic poor. It is also important to note that social protection interventions in most cases also require policy interventions in social welfare and human development. Policies that relate to the economy, labour market, education, health etc all have an effect on increasing or reducing vulnerabilities.  Different mechanisms are used to address the risks and vulnerabilities including cash grants, food, public work programmes, and fee waivers among others. Examples of interventions for the different groups are listed in the table below.

Category Social protection needs Examples of social protection interventions
Chronic poor and labour constrained Survival

Investment in human capital

  • Cash transfers
  • Address nutrition
  • School feeding
  • Food distribution programmes
  • Investment in education.



Poor with labour capacity
  • Survival
  • Productive assets
  • Employment
  • Public work programmes
  • Cash and food for assets
  • Farm input subsidies
  • Skill building
  • Adult literacy and training.

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