In the implementation of a cash transfer programme, a rift often exists between policy design and the realities of poor and vulnerable communities. Resource constraints demand stringent targeting, resulting in perceptions of unfairness emerging regarding eligibility. Informal redistribution of transfers therefore occurs, undermining policy objectives.

A social protection programme’s policy manual may say one thing, but influential stakeholders within a community might disagree. In this context, informal redistribution might take place. This can result in cash transfers, and wider social protection efforts, not realising their potential impact. While this observation is not novel, it is rarely discussed. This blog therefore aims to encourage reflection on the extent to which policy and practice are aligned in community level programme implementation. This is also a follow-up to my previous blog, which explored the financing of Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme.


Designing national policies to optimise impact

Transfer level
Cash transfers aim to smooth incomes and reduce poverty. An increase in spending on food, education, and healthcare  increases human capital in the long run. “Cash transfers can thus both protect living standards (alleviating destitution) and promote wealth creation (supporting transition to more sustainable livelihoods)” (Arnold, Conway & Greenslade, 2011, p. i).

To achieve these goals, it is necessary to have a certain minimum transfer value. These are at risk when beneficiaries, in practice, receive less than “the commonly accepted minimum threshold for critical impacts (the equivalent of 20 percent of household consumption)” (Angeles et al., 2016, p. 295-6).

From a policy point of view, one of the key questions is also “who gets what?”. Targeting is by its very nature contentious because resources are limited. As such, choices need to be made about who benefits, and to what extent. Many groups try and make a claim on (potentially) available resources. Some actors argue for support that favours children. Others feel more aligned with the plight of pensioners, and some prefer ‘poverty targeting’, whereby only the poorest of the poor qualify (see Regional Hunger & Vulnerability Programme, 2009 for a discussion of the options that were investigated for Malawi).

Policy makers, therefore, frequently engage in debates with stakeholders about targeting and what a realistic transfer value would be. Here, they need to strike a compromise between the available (donor) funding and the objectives the programme or wider policy pursues. Another factor to consider is that sometimes a (political) desire exists to have as many people benefit from the programme as possible. When all these interests have been considered, and a policy decision has been made, it is time for programme implementation. It is here that all well-intentioned design choices might be adapted into what people in a community consider to be fair.

Programme eligibility and fairness at the community level

Key here is that ‘who is deserving, and to what extent?’ is an inherently subjective question. Frank Ellis observed that in many communities there is a sense that “we are all poor here” and that despite the efforts of implementers to explain the programme’s selection criteria, there is a sense of unfairness when one household benefits while the next doesn’t (2012, p. 202). For example, image 1 shows that in some districts in Malawi more than 70% of the population is classified as poor. However, only 10% will be enrolled in Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP).

Community Based Targeting
In designing social protection programmes, programmers often try to account for this through a process of ‘Community Based Targeting’ (CBT). This approach gives communities a stake in selecting who they feel are the most deserving within their community. Nonetheless, this will not completely remove feelings of unfairness. Moreover, this targeting approach is fraught with its own problems and can be used by the community to serve its own purposes rather than the programmes’ purposes.

Feelings of unfairness might be further provoked when programmes that have broadly the same objective – reducing poverty – have different transfer values. For example, local dissatisfaction might arise when the balance between how much people earn by working on a Public Works Programme and how much they receive as a cash transfer beneficiary is considered to be unfair by the community.


Poverty levels per district in Malawi
Image 1: Poverty status by district, Malawi, 2011 (Republic of Malawi, 2012, p. 2)


Benefiting from multiple programmes

Shock and crisis
Malawi’s SCTP targets households that are both ultra-poor and labour constrained at the same time. The programme design considers this demographic to be the most vulnerable group in society. The transfer is insufficient to sustainably lift beneficiaries out of poverty, meaning these people are very sensitive to shocks. As such, efforts have been made in recent years to trigger additional transfers for SCTP beneficiaries when a humanitarian emergency (such as a drought or flood) impacts their community. This renders some beneficiaries eligible for multiple transfers, simultaneously.

Cash plus
In order for programme beneficiaries to graduate, or achieve “longer-term and second-order impacts related to nutrition, learning outcomes and morbidity”, more support is needed (Roelen et al., 2017, p. 4). Even in the context of graduation, beneficiaries remain vulnerable. Improved resilience to shocks is needed to prevent people falling back into poverty again. This recognition has prompted the development sector to increasingly look towards ‘cash plus’ programmes. Cash plus programmes involve providing additional interventions and/or better linking beneficiaries to existing services.  

Long-term impact
This focus on long-term impacts preferences programme design that lifts households out of poverty permanently. In the context of limited resources, this demands stringent targeting and more limited coverage. The alternative however, is expanded coverage with short term impacts being achieved, without the prospect of reducing long-term dependency on transfers. When coverage is limited in a community where ‘everyone is poor’, and needs are immediate, perceptions can differ greatly on who should be benefit from social protection, and to what extent. This can result in informal redistribution taking place.

How informal redistribution takes place:

1.     Manipulating the selection process
One way in which informal redistribution can take place is through the CBT selection process. For example, anecdotal evidence suggests that households that technically qualify for several interventions only receive, for example, the SCTP. The community utilises the CBT method to redirect interventions to other poor households who may meet the formal intervention requirements but are not the beneficiaries programmers give priority to.

2.     Pooling and redistributing transfers
Once the government team that distributes the cash transfer has left, the community can come together, pool the funds, and redistribute it among its members. This might happen as a result of consensus within the community, or because a powerful member, such as a Chief, decides it should happen. Malawi’s rural communities experience widespread (ultra-)poverty. Therefore, the officials who supervise targeting and distribution are not always aware of this practice. After all, many households meet the formally required ‘poverty threshold’ and only the community members themselves know the subtle differences within their community.

The limitations to policy’s power
These, and other, informal redistribution tactics are all examples of how local perceptions of deservingness and fairness impact the outcomes pursued by those who design programmes. As such, they point to the limitations of policy in dictating social protection policy implementation at the community level. Even so, some developments in social protection, such as ‘cash plus’ programmes, indicate that policy makers are continuing to concentrate their interventions on a limited number of beneficiaries.

A rift can be said to exist between social protection policy and programme design, and the realities of local communities in the context of resource constrained targeting, limited coverage, and inadequate transfers. In this context, policy objectives are likely to clash with local perceptions of fairness. This can provoke the informal redistribution of transfers, thereby circumventing the intended programme design and ultimately undermining the policy’s objectives.‘


Angeles, G., Abdoulai, S., Barrington, C., Handa, S., Kainja, E., & Mvula, P. et al. (2016). The Social Cash Transfer Programme of Malawi: The Role of Evaluation from the Pilot to the Expansion. In B. Davis, S. Handa, N. Hypher, N. Winder Rossi, P. Winters & J. Yablonski, From Evidence to Action: The Story of Cash Transfers and Impact Evaluation in Sub-Saharan Africa (1st ed.). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessible:

Arnold, C., Conway, T., & Greenslade, M. (2011). Cash Transfer Literature Review. Department for International Development. Accessible:

Regional Hunger & Vulnerability Programme (2009). Targeting Social Cash Transfers: The Process of Defining Target Groups and Designing the Targeting Mechanism for the Malawi Social Cash Transfer Scheme. Johannesburg, South Africa: Regional Hunger & Vulnerability Programme.

Republic of Malawi (2012). Integrated Household Survey 2010 - 2011. Zomba: National Statistical Office.

Roelen, K., Devereux, S., Abduali, A., Martorano, B., Palermo, T., & Ragno, L. (2017). How to Make ‘Cash Plus’ Work: Linking Cash Transfers to Services and Sectors. Florence: UNICEF Office of Research.


Roeland Hemsteede is a PhD student at the University of Dundee and looks at how power relations at the national and international level affect the design and implementation of cash transfers in Malawi and Lesotho. The views expressed in this blog are his personal views based on ongoing research and do not necessarily represent those of the research team he is a part of ( Moreover, the nature and limitations in terms of space mean that this blog only expresses broad ideas without the nuance and specificity that is required for a full understanding. It is intended to stimulate discussion rather than a definite and unchangeable argument.


Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
  • Labour market programs/Public work/Productive inclusion
    • Cash for work
    • Sustainable livelihood programmes
    • Training
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Benefits level
  • Coverage
  • Governance
  • Informal social protection
  • Political economy
  • Social protection systems
  • Targeting
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Consumption and expenditure
  • Education
  • Health
    • Health - General
  • Income generating activities and asset accumulation
  • Poverty
  • Resilience
  • Risk and vulnerability
  • Malawi
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
The views presented here are the author's and not's