Expanding social protection offers a faster track to ending hunger – UN report

Zelifa Kampeza, 78, submits proof of her identity to administrators of a Social Cash Transfer programme in Malawi. Photo: FAO/Amos Gumulira

13 October 2015 – A new report published today by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) finds that social protection is emerging as a critical tool in the drive to eradicate hunger, yet the vast majority of the world’s rural poor are yet to be covered.

“It is urgent that we act to support the most vulnerable people in order to free the world of hunger,” said FAO’s Director-General José Graziano da Silva in a press release.

“Social protection programs allow households to access more food – often by increasing what they grow themselves – and also make their diets more diverse and healthier. These programs can have positive impacts on infant and maternal nutrition, reduce child labor and raise school attendance, all of which increase productivity,” he added.

The State of Food and Agriculture 2015 shows that in poor countries, social protection schemes – such as cash transfers, school feeding and public works – offer an economical way to provide vulnerable people with opportunities to move out of extreme poverty and hunger and to improve their children's health, education and life chances.

According to FAO, such programmes currently benefit 2.1 billion people in developing countries in various ways, including keeping 150 million people out of extreme poverty. Expanding such programs in rural areas and linking them to inclusive agricultural growth policies would rapidly reduce the number of poor people, the report says.

Meanwhile, the agency estimates that only about a third of the world’s poorest people are covered by any form of social protection. Coverage rates dip even lower in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, regions with the highest incidence of extreme poverty. Without such assistance, the report finds that many poor and vulnerable people will never have the opportunity to break out of the poverty trap – in which hunger, illness and lack of education perpetuate poverty for future generations.

FAO is highlighting that most countries, even the poorest, can afford some kind of social protection program. Globally, some $67 billion a year in income supplements, mostly provided by social protection programs, would – along with other targeted pro-poor investments in agriculture – allow for the eradication of hunger by 2030. That is less than 0.10 per cent of world gross domestic product (GDP).

In Zambia for example, a pilot cash-grants programme led recipient households to greatly increase livestock ownership as well as land under cultivation, input use and ownership of tools such as hoes, sickles and axes, leading to a 50 per cent jump in the overall value of locally produced agricultural commodities.

Beneficiaries also spent more on food, clothing and health-and-hygiene - an amount 25 per cent greater than the value of the initial transfer. The wider community also benefited through the increased demand for locally produced goods and services generated by the transfer-every dollar transferred generates an additional 79 cents in income, often for non-beneficiaries providing these goods and services.

At least 145 countries today reportedly provide one or more forms of social assistance, including unconditional cash transfers, meaning outright grants for eligible recipients, conditional cash transfers, usually linked to school attendance or health checkups and, public-works programs that offer guaranteed employment. Other forms include in-kind transfers, including food distribution and school feeding programs.

Furthermore, the report stresses that the notion of social protection reducing people's work effort is a myth. Rather, recipients often respond to social protection positively, including improving the nutrition and education of their children, relying more on home production rather than poorly paid wage work and also increasing their participation in existing networks such as funeral societies, a common form of risk management in many traditional communities.

Still, the report underlines how social protection alone cannot sustainably eradicate hunger and rural poverty. FAO therefore underscores the importance of combining and coordinating public investment in social protection with public and private investments in the productive sectors of agriculture and rural development. Such actions, it says, will ensure inclusive economic growth as a sustainable way to break the cycle of rural poverty.

The report was released ahead of World Food Day , which this year focuses on social protection’s role in breaking the cycle of rural poverty.

News Tracker: past stories on this issue

Top UN forum on food security focuses on eradicating hunger by 2030

Related Stories

In-depth Interviews