An innovative approach to combating poverty and hunger is gaining credibility in sub-Saharan Africa and making its way into international development discourse. This involves bringing together agricultural and social protection interventions to support small family farmers in taking part in, and contributing to, the process of agricultural transformation.

Agricultural interventions to reduce structural constraints

In sub-Saharan Africa, poverty is concentrated in rural areas where small family farmers face several constraints such as few animals, access to only basic technologies, limited use of modern agricultural inputs, like drought-resistant seeds and eco-friendly fertilizers and limited access to natural resources.

Economic growth helps to combat poverty and hunger. However, more often than not, poor small family farmers are excluded from the growth process even though they have the potential to contribute to it.

When agricultural interventions are targeted towards small family farmers they can address the structural constraints that limit their access to land and water resources, agricultural inputs, finance, extension services—which provide knowledge, technologies and practical training to farmers—and markets. These interventions are fundamental but nevertheless insufficient to unleash poor people’s economic and productive potential. More is needed to support farmers in investing in their agricultural activities and in engaging in more productive livelihoods. For instance, small family farmers might be unable to take on the risks associated with adopting new technologies or are not able to afford agricultural inputs, even when these are subsidized, or they face challenges in accessing markets.

Social protection to unleash small family farmers’ productive potential

So, is the outlook daunting or is there a way to unleash small family farmers’ productive potential and help them exit poverty? This is where social protection comes into play.

Social protection is increasingly being recognized as a central tool for combating poverty and hunger and to help build resilience, as recognized in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report; and countries are implementing social protection programmes to address their specific development needs and accelerate progress towards Target 1.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals to “implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all.”

And we are also seeing growing evidence of the productive impacts of social protection.

Growing evidence of success

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in collaboration with UNICEF, has generated evidence of the productive impacts of social protection interventions in seven sub-Saharan African countries. This evidence shows that social protection is contributing to improving consumption, school attendance, health, and food security as well as unleashing the productive potential of small family farmers. Social protection programmes have enhanced agricultural activities among beneficiary households (with, for example, increased use of agricultural inputs and increased livestock holdings), given families greater flexibility in labour allocation (leading to reduced agricultural wage labour), and helped them better manage risk. Cash transfers have also benefitted the wider communities through local economic multiplier effects.

Social protection interventions can usefully complement agricultural interventions. They provide liquidity and certainty for poor small family farmers. This allows them to invest more in agriculture—which is their main source of livelihood— to re-allocate labour to on-farm activities, to foster human capital development which increases labour productivity, and to better manage risks. However, today there are only isolated cases where agricultural and social protection interventions are already well coordinated.

There are long-standing challenges: ministries of agriculture and agencies managing social protection programmes share similar objectives related to combating poverty and hunger but they often have different strategic approaches; and there is limited understanding of the productive potential of the poor. In spite of these challenges, there are great opportunities to make this new approach work. Poor family farmers have the potential to be productive: what it takes is providing them with the tools to succeed. Bringing together agriculture and social protection represents a lasting investment in these people’s future.

Positive examples include Lesotho where the national cash transfer programme (Child Grant Programme) is complemented with a home gardening package to improve families’ food security. Or Peru where beneficiaries of the Juntos cash transfer programme are entitled to livelihood and financial support offered by the Haku Winay programme. And also Bangladesh, where poor households participate in programmes that provide integrated packages of livelihood support that include both agricultural and social protection interventions.

Working across silos

What can development partners do to make the two sectors work together?

FAO is supporting governments and other partners in maximizing synergies between agricultural and social protection policies as well as in articulating a coordinated strategy for rural development. For example, in Lesotho and Zambia, FAO is generating evidence on the value added of combining agricultural and social protection interventions to inform the upscaling of these models. While in Malawi FAO is generating evidence to inform budget allocations between agricultural and social protection programmes that are consistent with national objectives of combating poverty and food insecurity. In Rwanda FAO is mobilizing Parliamentarians’ political commitment to increase synergies between the two sectors. And finally, FAO is strengthening institutional capacities and the understanding of government staff of what agriculture and social protection can achieve if brought closer together to work towards one common goal.

Author: Massimiliano Terzini (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), July 2017

This blog was originally featured on UNRISD as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfill the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.


Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
  • Social insurance
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Coverage
  • Programme design
    • Targeting
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social protection systems
  • Universal Social Protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Agriculture and rural development
  • Poverty reduction
  • Africa
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
The views presented here are the author's and not's


Good to read!