Political Factors in the Growth of Social Assistance

Armando Barrientos and Sony Pellissery

A large expansion of social assistance programmes has taken place in developing countries in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Large-scale anti-poverty transfer programmes providing direct transfers to households in poverty have spread to a majority of middle-income countries in the South. In low-income countries, the growth of social assistance has been slower and more speculative, due in part to delivery capacity and financial constraints. Impact evaluation studies indicate that, taken as a whole and in combination with economic growth and basic service infrastructure, well-designed anti-poverty programmes can make an important contribution to the reduction of global poverty and vulnerability (Lopez-Calva and Lustig 2010).[1] Social assistance has become an important component of poverty reduction and development strategies in the South. There is a fast-growing literature on anti-poverty transfer programmes in developing countries (Fiszbein and Schady 2009; Grosh et al. 2008; Hanlon et al. 2010). To date, the focus of this literature has been on issues of design and impact. It is widely acknowledged that politics does matter for the adoption, design, and implementation of anti-poverty transfer programmes, but this remains a substantially under-researched topic (Hickey 2008b). The main objective of this chapter is to review and assess the scarce literature on the politics of social assistance, with a view to identifying relevant approaches, knowledge, and knowledge gaps.

There is a degree of uncertainty around terminology in the context of international development, thus we start with some definitions.[2] Social policy includes the provision of basic services—in the main, education and health care, but also water and sanitation in low-income countries— and social protection. Social protection includes three main components: social insurance, social assistance, and labour market interventions. Social insurance covers contributory programmes covering life-course and work- related contingencies. Social assistance comprises tax-financed programmes managed by public agencies and addressing poverty and deprivation. It has become commonplace to distinguish 'passive' from 'active' labour market policies, with 'passive' interventions aimed at securing basic rights in the workplace and 'active' interventions enhancing employability.

Our chapter focuses on social assistance or anti-poverty transfer programmes, that is, tax-financed programmes directed by public agencies with the objective of reducing, preventing, and eventually eradicating poverty (Barrientos 2007). Programmes in low-income countries are sometimes financed from international assistance. They are tax-financed but the taxes are collected in a different jurisdiction.

There is huge diversity in the design of social assistance in developed and developing countries. In high-income countries, social assistance has an income maintenance design, providing income transfers aimed at filling in the poverty gap. In developing countries (Barrientos et al. 2010), social assistance includes a variety of programme designs, including pure income transfers, as in non-contributory pensions or child grants and allowances; income transfers combined with asset accumulation and protection, as in human development conditional transfer programmes or guaranteed employment schemes; and integrated anti-poverty programmes covering a range of poverty dimensions and addressing social exclusion. There is also diversity in scale, scope, and institutionalization in social assistance across countries, and across programmes within countries.

This chapter conceptualizes the politics of social assistance in developing countries as a two-way process. On the one hand, social assistance is shaped by political processes. The extension of anti-poverty transfer in the South reflects growing attention to poverty reduction. In many countries in the South, social policy, but particularly social protection and assistance, has risen in importance in political and policy discourse and debate. Lula's re-election in 2006 is credited by many to the success of Bolsa Familia (Zucco 2008). In India, the re-election of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2009 is largely credited to the introduction of the National Rural Employment

Guarantee Act (NREGA) in their first term (Yadav and Palshinkar 2009). The first important set of issues and questions revolve around the influence of politics on the shape of social assistance in the South. On the other hand, social assistance programmes feed back into politics at the national and local levels. Social assistance programmes have the potential to enhance the political participation of groups in poverty at the local level, align electoral support, and change policy priorities and the effectiveness of service deliv- ery.[3] At the national level, social assistance programmes have the potential to lock in left-of-centre or populist coalitions, and perhaps generate wider changes in policy. A discussion of these feedback processes would throw light upon potential issues of dependency and political manipulation by elites. A second important set of questions and issues revolve around the significance and orientation of these feedback processes.

The existing literature on the politics of social assistance is scarce and country or programme specific. A full review of the literature will not be attempted here, but relevant studies will be referred to and integrated throughout the chapter. There is a fast-growing literature focusing on the micro-level interaction of social assistance and politics. This literature is country or programme specific (De La O 2006; Giovagnoli 2005; Pellissery 2008; Zucco 2008). There is a scarce literature examining the macro or structural political factors facilitating or restricting social assistance (Hickey 2008b, 2009). The most significant gap in the literature relates to conceptual frameworks capable of explaining the politics of poverty reduction programmes. The existing literature draws from the conceptual frameworks developed to study the politics of redistribution.[4] This framework provides interesting insights, but there are few gains in collapsing processes of poverty reduction into processes of redistribution. For high-income countries, Esping-Andersen has provided the most influential framework for examining the production of welfare in advanced capitalist countries,[5] but efforts to adapt the framework to the examination of developing countries have not paid sufficient attention to politics or social assistance. Particularly the challenges to develop an appropriate framework arise from the issues of incorporating different forms of democracy (since democracy has seen uneven development in the global South), identity politics that shapes participation in political processes and limited accountability that many of the authoritarian states possess. Our attempt is to address these issues which are neglected in the literature on politics of social protection.

Given the vast ground to be covered and the absence of comprehensive approaches to the issue under investigation, it is important to set out the approach and methodology adopted in this chapter at the outset. It is beyond the scope of the chapter to try to cover all programmes, countries, and regions. It is necessary to be extremely selective on these. Our chapter will focus on three countries: Brazil, India, and South Africa. The justification for selecting these three countries is straightforward. They are three large middle-income countries with a rich experience of social assistance innovations. They are leading countries in their respective regions. Together they provide a range of approaches to the extension of social assistance and also demonstrate the diversity of political institutions. The country selection will inevitably influence the discussion in the chapter.[6] It can be argued that the three countries selected have conditions which have led to a rapid growth in social assistance, conditions which are hard to replicate elsewhere. The point of the country selection is to learn about the role of politics in social assistance, not necessarily to ensure representativeness of conditions in the South. The analysis in this chapter will provide insights and perspectives valuable to other developing countries, and the framework presented should enable one to assess the strength and weaknesses of the relevant institutions and to identify feedback effects from, and to, political processes in those contexts.

Our methodological approach will be twofold. A comparative study of the politics of social assistance in the three countries selected will help identify inductively key issues and questions. This will be preceded by a discussion of how best to model the interaction of politics and social assistance in developing countries. This discussion will help give shape to the main features of an appropriate deductive framework. A process of triangulation will help achieve the main objectives of the chapter: to identify key approaches, findings, and knowledge gaps.

The rest of the chapter is divided into three main sections. The second section introduces and discusses a framework for examining the politics of social assistance. The third section presents the main findings from the three country case studies and draws out the main differences and similarities. The final section goes back to the main research question and discusses whether politics matter for the growth and effectiveness of social assistance in developing countries, and draws out the main conclusions.

  • [1] They can also make a marginal contribution to the reduction of inequality. A recent crosscountry study on declining inequality trends in Latin America identifies two main explanations: (i) a fall in the premium to skilled labour; (ii) the impact of higher and more progressivegovernment transfers. See (Lopez-Calva and Lustig 2010).
  • [2] Uncertainty over terminology and scope is greatest in international policy debates.
  • [3] A good case in point is NREGA introduction in India. With the introduction of the programme, poor people got the opportunity to interact at the sites of work location, and toorganize themselves as 'NREGA workers'. Some state governments facilitated this potentialopportunity to bring accountability in to the work systems and to improve governance by usingthe feedback from the NREGA workers (Pellissery and Jalan 2011).
  • [4] See, for a recent survey, Robinson (2010). The classic source is Meltzer and Scott (1981).
  • [5] Politics and social assistance played a larger part in his earlier work (see Esping-Andersen1990). Attempts to adapt the framework to developing countries have focused on institutions,and ignored politics (see Gough and Wood 2004).
  • [6] The selection of cases can also get complicated when we note that different programmeswithin a single country can show different levels of political support. Indonesia has introducedlarge-scale social protection programmes since the financial crisis in 1998 to help families copewith the effects from financial shocks. They include food subsidies (Raskin), UnconditionalCash Transfer (Bantuan Langsung Tunai), Conditional Cash Transfer (Program KeluargaHarapan), Cash for Work and School Assistance. Among these, unconditional cash transferprogrammes have been the least politically acceptable both at local level and national level,primarily due to targeting errors (see Bambang Widianto 'The Political Economy of SocialProtection in Indonesia', a paper presented during the international conference on 'ReformingSocial Protection Systems in Developing Countries' held 20-1 October 2011 at the Institute ofDevelopment Research and Development Policy, Rurh Universitat Bochum, Germany).
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