A human Rights approach to Social Assistance programmes in Africa is key in the realization of the rights of the poor and vulnerable.

Social Assistance programmes by governments has gained a lot of importance in Africa. Driven by high levels of poverty, many countries in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) are assigning greater importance to social protection as a means of alleviating and reducing vulnerability. The African Union (2014) explains that in the last 10 years there has been a noteworthy expansion of social protection programmes established by governments. Social Protection as a development agenda in many developing countries is guided by the fact that most of these countries are plagued by poverty. Poverty therefore forms the principle basis for socio-economic development as well as the investment in social protection. Apart from persistent poverty, other reasons that push the demand for social protection include vulnerability to risks and shocks, marginalization, diseases such as HIV and AIDs as well as unpredictable weather patterns resulting from climate change. The emerging social assistance programmes are usually in addition to the formal social security and health insurance programmes. The Intergovernmental Conference on social protection held in Livingstone Zambia in 2006 was a watershed for the unprecedented increase in non-contributory programmes in Africa that cushion the poor from poverty, risks and vulnerability. The conference identified regular cash transfers to vulnerable groups as a cost-effective means to reduce poverty and realise basic human rights.

However using cash transfer programmes to realize human rights, does not necessarily mean that African governments are using a human rights approach in the implementation of cash transfer programmes. The fact that the basis for social assistance programmes is to address poverty, risks and vulnerability, it means that such programmes target people who are poor and vulnerable. In most cases when you are poor and vulnerable, the likelihood of violation of rights is high.

According to the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, “under a human rights-based approach, plans, policies and programmes are anchored in a system of rights and corresponding obligations established by international law. This helps to promote sustainability, empowering the right holders to participate in policy formulation and hold accountable those who have a duty to act (duty bearers)”. The human rights based approach to development is a conceptual framework that is applicable in all spheres of development. Based on the international normative frameworks, the approach promotes the protection of human rights standards in all interventions. A human rights based approach endeavours to tackle discrimination, inequalities and injustices by addressing practices that promote power imbalances in the implementation of any programme.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Inter-national Labour Organization’s (ILO) constitution and legal instruments on social security all establish social protection as a means for States to protect their most vulnerable citizens. Article 22 of the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that “Every person has a right to social Security”. Other  international human rights instruments with provisions on social protection include  the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which provides for the implementation of specific measures by governments, such as adopting appropriate measures to introduce social benefits during maternity leave (Article 11) and ensuring that women in rural areas are also beneficiaries of social protection programmes (Article 14); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which recognizes the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development (Article 27); and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which requires that States parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to social protection without discrimination on the basis of ability (Article 28).

By signing the international Conventions that promote social protection, African governments should develop their programmes, polices and plans to correspond to the obligations under the international treaties. Key principles which underpin the international frameworks include the principles of  universality of protection, equality and non-discrimination,  dignity and autonomy, inclusion of vulnerable groups, transparency and access to information, and meaningful and effective participation. Others include access to accountability mechanisms and effective remedies, and respect of privacy.

Many countries in Africa have enshrined social protection as a right through national Constitutions. This means that African governments are assigning greater importance to social protection and ensure that it is provided as a right. However there seems to a challenge in moving this political will to strengthen the realization of this right through a social protection specific legislation. Many countries have developed policies, but have not developed subsidiary legislations which provide a legal framework for provision of social protection services. National legal instruments ensure the enjoyment of social protection rights by beneficiaries. Additionally the existence of a legal framework secure the social protection guarantees and cushion vulnerable populations from effects of political manipulation of social assistance programmes and it promotes the provision of social protection services as a right and not an act of charity.

Social protection programmes should be designed to respond to the principles of human rights including;

A strong Legal and Institutional Framework

Social protection programmes should be grounded in a strong legal and institutional framework, to protect the human rights of the beneficiaries of social protection programmes from instability. When there is no specific law on social protection, social protection programmes are subject to political will and manipulation. Such a law clearly lays out the entitlements, rights and obligations to guarantee the provision of social protection to citizens. The law should include the eligibility criteria, roles and responsibilities of the different actors, participation of beneficiaries, access to information, access to a complaints and redress mechanism, and financial sustainability of the programmes among others.

Legal and Policy coherence

Social protection includes broad measures to address poverty and vulnerability. According to the African Union,” Social protection includes responses by the state and society to protect citizens from risks, vulnerabilities and deprivations. It also includes strategies and programmes aimed at ensuring a minimum standard of livelihood for all people in a given country. This entails measures to secure education and health care, social welfare, livelihood, access to stable income, as well as employment.” It therefore means that social protection programmes should be anchored in law, as well as the need for legal and policy coherence in the different sectors implementing social protection programmes.

Universality of Protection

State parties who are signatories to International treaties and conventions including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC), the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDWA),the United Nations on the Rights of the Child(UNCRC), the United nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) among others have an obligation to ensure the realization of the right to social protection, including social security, health insurance and social assistance. It also includes the realization of the right to an adequate standard of living.

Equality and non-discrimination

Non-discrimination and equality are core elements of the international human rights normative framework. These principles provide for equal rights on an equal basis with others regardless of the race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin among others , property, birth or other status”.

Dignity and Autonomy

Social protection services providers are required to respect the inherent dignity of all beneficiaries of social protection. Social protection programmes should minimize stigma, marginalization and exclusion. Social protection services should to a great extent promote personal independence and allow the beneficiaries independence and ability to make choices. Social protection services should not subject the beneficiaries to shame, but rather should promote their dignity. For example the manner in which beneficiaries access services including payment must be in a manner that promotes their dignity and allow for independence and autonomy. In the African context infrastructural barriers such as poor roads make it challenging for beneficiaries to access payments of social protection benefits.

Inclusion of vulnerable groups

There is need to ensure that those who are most disadvantaged are included in social protection programmes. There is need for extra measures to ensure that groups facing marginalization such as persons with disabilities and ethnic minorities are included in social protection programmes. State parties are expected to take actions including affirmative action to ensure marginalized groups access their right to social protection.


Poverty, vulnerability and risks affect man and women differently. It is therefore important for social protection programmes to address the needs of men and women along the lifecycle. A lifecycle approach considers the needs of men and women from childhood, to adolescents, to youth and old age. The programmes must address be cognisant of cultural aspects that promote gender discrimination.

Transparency and Access to Information

Transparency, accountability and access to information are important components of service provision. Information on the existing programmes should be readily available to the beneficiaries and citizens. Information on targeting parameters( for targeted approach programmes) or general information on how beneficiaries are enlisted in a programme, the benefit amount, the period of payments are essential in promoting dignity and autonomy. Information on existing programmes should be readily available to ensure effectiveness and participation. Citizens can hold social protection administrators to account through citizen monitoring tools including scorecards, report cards and social accountability tools. Effective monitoring depends on access to information on existing programmes. Social protection


Participation of beneficiaries as well as other citizens in social protection programmes promotes efficiency. There are different levels of participation, including participation in the design of the programmes as well as involvement in the development of laws and policies on social protection. Effective involvement and participation builds public trust on existing programmes.

Access to a complaints and redress mechanism

Whenever a service is provided, especially the cash transfer programmes which have many facets and different service providers, there are high chances that gaps or challenges will emerge. For the cash transfer programmes, there are issues around delays in  payments, distance to collection point challenges with identification of beneficiaries using the biometric system, dignity in service provision among other. A human rights approach requires that a mechanism for receiving and resolving complaints at the shortest time possible is established. The complaints and redress mechanism should be simple, effective and accessible. It should also be protected to avoid victimization of the complainants. National human rights institutions can also provide a platform for complaints and redress of social protection services.

Respect of Privacy

The nature of cash transfer programmes requires a heavy investment in data collection. From the point of targeting to the point of exit, a lot of personal information is collected including information on the dependants, income, and family information among others. It is important that this information is stored securely, without compromising the right to privacy for the beneficiaries. Local laws on social protection should provide for the protection of personal information.

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