Social Protection For Food Security And Development : Dr Lok Nath Bhusal

Our existence lies in eating food. Food saves lives. It makes people healthy, wealthy and wise. Well-nourished food enhances our material and spiritual growth and development. Lack of or inadequate food consumption brings hunger and malnutrition. Availability of food is a non-poverty situation, and in poverty, food is always lacking or inadequate, if the measure of poverty is consumption-based, such as Nepal’s national poverty.

The world in which we live is very unequal in terms of availability of food. Some people have enough food to eat, but others have to eat less or go hungry. Under the first MDG, one target was set to reduce the proportion of people affected by hunger by half, between 1990 and 2015.

Social protection schemes

The recently published FAO's State of Food Insecurity in the World shows that a total of 72 developing countries out of 129, or more than half the countries monitored, have reached the MDG hunger target. The report highlights the role of social protection schemes for this achievement. It states that the successful countries 'enjoyed stable political conditions and economic growth, often accompanied by social protection policies targeted at vulnerable population groups.'

Although targeting always suffers from inclusion and exclusion errors, the well-targeted schemes are always resource-saving and justifiable from the public policy point of view. This rticle is an attempt to critically look at the role of social protection in reducing hunger around the globe, as highlighted in this report.

Stressing on the overall usefulness of social protection for creating a good, resilient and vibrant economy and society, the report states that 'social protection directly contributes to the reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition by promoting income security and access to better nutrition, health care and education. By improving human capacities and mitigating the impacts of shocks, social protection fosters the ability of the poor to participate in growth through better access to employment.' It is obvious from this that social protection has the ability to play a transformative role in a developing country like Nepal.

The report makes it clear that in the absence of well-designed social protection schemes, the problem of food insecurity and thus hunger cannot be tackled. It states that 'countries where progress has been insufficient or where hunger rates have deteriorated are often characterised by weak agricultural growth and inadequate social protection measures. Many are in a state of protracted crisis.'

So besides growth, social protection helps reduce hunger through promoting livelihood of the poor and vulnerable households. The report further recognises the crucial role of social protection interventions for achieving food security outcomes. It states that 'the combination of safety nets with special programmes for family farmers and smallholders and targeted support to vulnerable groups, together with broad-based food security interventions such as school-feeding programmes, have contributed significantly to improving food security.'

Furthermore, the report sharply articulates the growth distribution puzzle by stating that 'in other countries [which have failed to reduce hunger and poverty], the benefits of economic growth have failed to reach the poor population, due to lack of effective social protection and income redistribution policies.' This makes it clear that the one-size-fits-all type of liberal policies does not yield the same results to all sections of society. In other words, growth does not automatically tickle down to the poor, the critical stance of non-neoliberal economists.

The report reaffirms that only a prudent handling of growth and redistribution policies can ensure inclusive development outcomes.

In its review of social protection and its developmental outcomes across the globe, the report states that 'social protection systems have become an important tool in the fight against hunger. More than one hundred countries implement conditional or unconditional cash transfer programmes that focus on promoting food security and nutrition, health and education, particularly for children.'

Analysing the contribution of different components of social protection interventions in realising food security outcomes in different developing countries, the report mentions that 'food distribution schemes and employment guarantee programmes are also important. The expansion of social protection across the developing world has been critical for progress towards the MDG 1c hunger target.'

Needless to say, public work programmes (the labour market-based social protection) have an extensive role in developing countries such as Nepal. As articulated in the report, as 'social protection can establish a virtuous circle of progress involving the poor with increased incomes, employment and wages', the benefits of social protection should be well-understood by development-oriented policy makers.

Elaborating the channels through which social protection schemes affect developmental outcomes, the report states that 'providing regular and predictable cash transfers to poor households often plays a critical role in terms of filling immediate food gaps, but can also help improve the lives and livelihoods of the poor by alleviating constraints to their productive capacity.' Through a case study of Ghana and Tanzania, the report documents the role of social protection in reducing inequality and Ghana's success in expanding social protection coverage through expansion of its tax base.

Moreover, the report clarifies the political economy of social protection development around the globe by stating that 'coverage has increased for many reasons, including the

recognition that social protection can be instrumental in promoting sustainable and inclusive growth. Social protection is a crucial part of the policy spectrum that addresses high and persistent levels of poverty and economic insecurity, high and growing levels of inequality, insufficient investments in human resources and capabilities, and weak automatic stabilisers of aggregate demand in the face of economic shocks.’ These determinants of social protection are increasingly becoming prominent across the globe.

Given the current uncertain situation, understanding such an encompassing role of social protection and also the possibility of its coverage extension are certainly crucial pointers for expanding social protection as suggested by the ILO through its Social Protection Floors recommendations.

Conducive sectoral policies

However, the report also makes it clear that 'just expanding social protection programmes will not suffice. The most effective social protection policies for improved food security and rural poverty reduction have been those that are well integrated with agriculture sector policies and fully aligned with the priorities and vision set out in broader strategies aimed at creating viable and sustainable livelihoods for the poor.' Therefore, there is a need to expand social protection coverage along with pursuing conducive sectoral policies.

(Dr. Bhusal, a doctorate in Political Economy of Poverty and Social Protection in Developing Countries, is associated with ILO-Kathmandu. Views expressed here are his personal.)

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