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Fighting poverty

Tackling social exclusion

by Jessica Hagen-Zanker

In depth

Rural mothers at a paediatrics clinic run by BRAC in Afghanistan in 2009.

Rural mothers at a paediatrics clinic run by BRAC in Afghanistan in 2009.

Plenty of evidence shows that social-protection programmes have positive impacts on dimensions of personal and household well-being, such as food consumption or access to health care and education. Recently attention has been focusing on whether – and if so, how – social protection contributes social inclusion and empowerment in a wider sense. Researchers from the Overseas Development Institute in London have gathered empirical evidence in South Asia.

It is argued that social protection does not only help people meet their basic needs, but can also contribute to their long-term well-being and to the broader societal goals of inclusion, equity, social justice and empowerment (Sabates-Wheeler and Devereux, 2008; UNICEF, 2012). In other words, social protection may be able to reduce the extent to which marginalised people and groups are socially excluded. To assess the merit of that thesis, we must consider what causes marginalisation in the first place and what is needed to change the dynamics of exclusion.  

Colleagues and I at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London have been working on filling these gaps. We have assessed the mechanisms by which social-protection policies and labour market programmes have promoted social inclusion in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. We considered the impacts of interventions by governmental and non-governmental agencies on social exclusion and to what extent these addressed the drivers of social exclusion.

Our studies were based on a framework that served to understand the many dimensions of social exclusion and reveal the processes that fuel deprivation and marginalisation. To understand the issues in depth and from different angles, we took a mixed-method approach, relying on both quantitative and qualitative methods. The case studies assessed social-protection and labour programmes in four countries. These programmes have in common that they target specific marginalised groups who are not only poor but excluded from economic and civic life in other ways too:

  • In Afghanistan, BRAC, an international non-governmental organisation with headquarters in Bangladesh, is running a life skills and livelihoods training initiative that offers, among other things, training for young women at Adolescent Reading Centres (ARCs). We looked at the programme in Kabul and Parwan provinces.
  • In Bangladesh, the Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP) and the Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) programme target women and households in marginalised areas. The CLP transfers assets and services to households living in the remote Chars area. The VGD offers food support and training to ethnic minorities in the Chittagong Hills Tracts.
  • In India, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) is a governmental health-insurance programme. Its purpose is to help members of marginalised Muslims as well as scheduled caste and scheduled tribes communities access health-care services. We looked at this programme in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra states.
  • In Nepal, the Child Grant is a governmental cash-transfer programme that supports all households with children aged less than five in the remote Karnali region and Dalit households with children aged less than five in the rest of the country.

Our research was geared to assessing impacts of these interventions on social exclusion. We found that the interventions in the four countries helped to improve social inclusion varying degrees. Key impacts included:

  • lower household spending on in-patient health care (RSBY in India),
  • improved food security and productive capacity (CLP and VGD in Bangladesh),
  • increased knowledge and improved social relations (ARC training in Afghanistan) and
  • a small increase in household consumption (Child Grant in Nepal).

We also considered the extent to which the interventions tackled drivers of social exclusion. We found that the interventions have had some, but rather small impacts in this regard. All programmes served to strengthen the social relations of members of the target group beyond their immediate community, including in terms of participation in social life and involvement in social networks. The RSBY health insurance in India, moreover, led to inclusion in a health-care system that the communities concerned could previously not afford. In Bangladesh, the integrated economic and social approach of the asset transfer programme expanded the productive opportunities for women, allowing them to diversify their livelihoods.

Why impact remains limited

Our research shows, however, that interventions in many cases failed to deliver sustainable or transformative change. We identified three kinds of factors that explain the limited impact:

  • context-specific economic, social and institutional issues that affect and reduce impacts,
  • programmes insufficient service-delivery capacity and funding and
  • constraints implied by both the objectives and nature of the interventions.

Our research found that discriminatory social norms and institutional bias play an important role. For example, the cultural and social norms that limit women’s access to capital and markets in Afghanistan were not adequately considered in the design of the ARC programme. Even tailoring – which appears to be a feasible and sensible choice as it is culturally acceptable and does not require women to work outside their homes – would require additional input and capital (for example to purchase sewing machines), which most women lack. Improved skills, as such, are not enough to enable women to take advantage of economic opportunities.

In a similar way, the outcomes of the VGD food-transfer programme in Bangladesh were limited by the social exclusion of the poorest from productive resources as well as by ethnic and gender discrimination. While the intervention had a positive impact on household income, female beneficiaries reported that the skills training they got did not lead to substantial opportunities because they lacked start-up capital or agricultural land. Unless these challenges are tackled, skills training will have limited impact.

In Nepal, the limited accountability of the local authorities in Karnali meant that the Child Grant was not paid in a predictable, regular and complete way. Poor governance meant policy implementation was incomplete and less effective than hoped for.

Our research also found that programmes need to be supported with sufficient financial resources to be effective. The Child Grant in Nepal, for example, is simply too small. The monthly transfers amounts to the price less than one chicken, which is not enough to enhance a poor household’s food security in any substantial way, given that the households concerned must cope with multiple deprivations.

In India, the service-delivery capacity of the RSBY was inadequate. More needs to be done in terms of outreach and information dissemination. Members of the target groups did not know what they were entitled too and could not take advantage accordingly.

Lessons to be learned

To sum up, the programmes we studied were all designed to tackle specific deprivations, but had little scope for making a difference beyond that specific deprivation. This is insufficient, as these deprivations are reinforced by other factors of multidimensional poverty that must be dealt with. It takes long-term policy engagement and structural change to enforce the principle of equal opportunities, uproot corruption, clientelism and mismanagement and to build strong institutions. Accordingly, social protection and labour-market programmes need to be part of a broader package of policies and programmes tackling social exclusion.

A number of policy and programming implications can be drawn from the evidence demonstrated from the case studies:

  • Programmes must be designed and implemented in a context-appropriate manner. Structural issues – such as gender discrimination, for instance – must be considered, so programmes can rise to the challenges and promote transformative change. It is not enough to teach women skills, they must also be enabled to participate in civic life and to engage with more diverse and sustainable livelihood opportunities.
  • Our research shows that adequate financial resources and service-delivery capacity are indispensable. Benefit size and regular provision matter, and so does outreach capacity.
  • The design of policy instruments must start with social and institutional analysis of factors that aect people’s access to resources, services and social and economic opportunities and that influence social exclusion outcomes. Careful assessment and identification of these factors should shape the intervention’s conceptual and technical design. It will also help to identify the strengths and weaknesses of specific instruments and establish measures to address factors beyond the reach of social-protection measures.

Social protection and labour instruments cannot tackle the drivers of social exclusion and poverty alone. They need to be part of a broad framework to promote social inclusion. Policy makers must ensure that various policies are coherent. There are links between social work, social assistance, health care, nutrition, education, access to the labour market and so on. To overcome social exclusion, all of these issues are relevant. Moreover, cross-cutting policies and activities that go beyond the social sectors are vital to address legal, administrative and institutional barriers to services and to productive opportunities.

Jessica Hagen-Zanker is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London.


References :

Adhikari, T. P., Thapa, F. B., Tamrakar, S., Magar, P. B., Hagen-Zanker, J., and Babajanian, B., 2014: How does social protection contribute to social inclusion in Nepal? Evidence from the Child Grant in the Karnali Region. ODI Report.
Echavez, C., Babajanian, B., Hagen-Zanker, J., Akter, S., and Bagaporo, J. L., 2014: How do labour programmes contribute to social inclusion in Afghanistan? Evidence from BRAC’s life skills education and livelihoods trainings for young women. ODI Report.
Sabharwal, N. S., Mishra, V. K., Naik, A. K., Holmes, R., and Hagen-Zanker, J, 2014: How does social protection contribute to social inclusion in India? Evidence from the National Health Insurance Programme (RSBY) in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. ODI Report.
Siddiki, O. F., Holmes, R., Jahan, F., Chowdhury, F., and Hagen-Zanker, J., 2014: How do safety nets contribute to social inclusion in Bangladesh? Evidence from the Chars Livelihoods Project and the Vulnerable Group Development programme. ODI Report.
Sabates-Wheeler, R., and Devereux, S., 2008: ‘Transformative Social Protection: The Currency of Social Justice’,in Barrientos, A., and Hulm, D., (eds): Social protection for the poor and poorest: concepts, policies and politics. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund), 2012: Integrated social protection systems: enhancing equity for children: UNICEF Social Protection Strategic Framework. New York: UNICEF.