The ‘Food Security and Nutrition-Sensitive Social Protection: What do we know and where to go next?’ webinar took place on the 22nd of October 2019. The event was organised by the World Food Programme (WFP). Referring to the latest findings on the field of food and nutrition-sensitive social protection, the webinar aimed to discuss the global challenges in the promotion of food security, identifying the key challenges and opportunities faced in the Middle East, Central Asia and North, East and Southern African regions.

The session was moderated by Juan Gonzalo Jaramillo Mejia (Social Protection Programme Policy Officer, World Food Programme), who was joined by speakers Dr. Michael Samson (Director of Research, Economic Policy Research Institute), Dr. Stephen Devereux (Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies), and Prof. Dr Franziska Gassmann (Professor in Social Protection and Development, UNU-MERIT/Maastricht Graduate School of Governance).

You can watch the webinar recording here and access the webinar presentation here.

Food and Nutritional Security: An analytical framework

Food security and nutrition security are often assumed to be synonyms; however, evidence suggests that there is a significant difference between the two.  Cash transfer programmes, for instance, report positive impacts on household food security indicators, while impacts on individual nutritional status typically lag, showing little or no improvement.  

Ethiopia’s Social Cash Transfer Pilot Programme (SCTPP) serves as a good example to demonstrate the theoretical discrepancy of these two concepts. The SCTPP distributed cash transfers to poor households, leading to improvements in food security, by lowering the annual food gap and ensuring a quality diet to families.  On the other hand, there was no evidence that the programme impacted on stunting or wasting, demonstrating statistically insignificant effects on body mass increases.

This paradox is mainly caused by the fact that social protection interventions primarily focus on tackling inadequate dietary intakes, through initiatives such as cash transfers, while undervaluing interventions more closely related to disease control.  Malnutrition is a condition that cannot be treated exclusively by cash transfers, as it is composed by multiple factors unrelated to purchasing power, such as access to water, sanitation and hygiene, appropriate breastfeeding practices, education, etc. Thusly, to achieve food and nutritional security, it is necessary to not only increase access to food, but also provide people with the capacity to combat malnutrition.

Food security and nutrition challenges in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region

In a WFP commissioned research from the IDS, ‘Social Protection and Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa’, a ten-country analysis was conducted to analyze social protection and safety nets in the region from the perspective of food security.  The countries in the region face several challenges:

Political instability hinders advances in achieving food security, due to the disruption in livelihoods, markets and food systems.

The MENA region has a small agricultural sector, however, around 80% of livelihoods in the area depend on agriculture and pastoralism. Further, the region is the world’s largest net importer of cereals, and because of climate change, it is facing an increase in droughts, which contributes to dependency in imports. Additionally, during the global ‘triple F’ crisis of 2008, food prices spiked, along with rates of malnutrition in the region.

Social protection interventions, limitations, opportunities in the MENA region

Consumer food price subsidies have historically been favored by governments in MENA, however, they are expensive and inefficient, since benefits are disproportionately captured by the non-poor. Currently, subsidies are being phased out, but this pushes up food prices and threatens food security, unless compensatory measures using the ‘subsidy dividend’ are introduced.

Cash transfers in MENA have low impact because of low coverage, low benefits, inefficient targeting. The graph below illustrates social protection spending in the region:

Popular interventions also include targeted school feeding programmes, public works projects and nutrition programmes. To improve access to these policies, it is essential that the region:

  1. Expands coverage, capturing and investing the subsidy dividend;
  2. Improves targeting;
  3. Prioritizes malnutrition;
  4. Addresses urban food insecurity;
  5.  Builds resilience through initiatives such as contingency financing;
  6. Strengthens coordination between food security and social protection programmes

Food security and malnutrition in Central Asia

Based on the findings of the WFP-commissioned report ‘Regional Synthesis & Country Case Studies: Armenia, Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan’, the second part of the webinar was dedicated to exploring the current conjuncture of food security in Central Asia.  The report aimed to provide an overview of existing social protection programmes in these countries, contributing to the development of WFP’s social protection strategy for the region.

Undernutrition rates in the region are relatively moderate, with the exception of Tajikistan, the poorest country in Central Asia, which presents particularly high prevalence of malnutrition. Furthermore, the countries in the region face a double burden of under and overnutrition, as demonstrated on the graphs below:

The main food and nutritional security challenges in Central Asia are related to:

  1. Poverty;
  2. Lack of nutritional awareness;
  3. Dependence on food imports.

In addition to these structural challenges, the countries in the region are vulnerable to covariate shocks, such as natural disasters, global economic developments and fluctuations in global food and energy prices.

Despite reoccurring difficulties, the region presents comprehensive social protection systems, having inherited policies from the Soviet-era, such as robust social insurance programmes, which take up most of the countries’ budgets:

With regards to social assistance, most of the countries in Central Asia have difficulties in establishing appropriate coverage and benefit levels – these inadequacies impact directly on the capacity of social assistance to contribute to poverty alleviation.  Productive safety nets, shock-responsive initiatives, and cash plus approaches are still largely underdeveloped.  While all countries count with active labor market programmes, they lack appropriate linkages with other social protection programmes, mainly due to the lack of synergy amongst involved governmental institutions.

School feeding programs are important elements of social protection strategies, especially home-grown school meals, which deliver positive returns with respect to poverty reduction, nutrition and human capital accumulation.

Social protection and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa

The third section of the webinar was dedicated to discussing food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

  1. The Kenyan experience

Being composed by arid and semi-arid regions, the Kenyan landscape hinders agricultural productivity, directly impacting on food consumption and security.  On recent years, the country has made considerable progress with respect to social protection, as demonstrated by the establishment of the National Safety Net Program (NSNP), which includes four cash transfer programmes to targeted groups.

Unfortunately, the impact of these programmes is limited due to poor design and implementation. The effects of these national programmes can be enhanced with improved design and implementation, combining transfers with accessible social policies, and by using ‘Cash Plus’ initiatives to address specific barriers.

The outreach of cash transfers conceals important differences among households, given that the impact of the transfer can vary greatly according to regions – the impact on nutrition is highest for households hit by droughts, and households with low food expenditures.  The impact of these transfers can be improved with the provision of additional services; however, services alone are not as efficient.

  1. 1,000 days of social protection for Central and Eastern Africa

 In Central and Eastern Africa, existing social protection programmes, particularly cash transfers, do not necessarily have explicit nutrition objectives that aim to achieve nutritional outcomes and impacts during a child’s first 1,000 days, lacking adequate linkages to complementary nutritional interventions. Targeting and the provision of adequate benefit levels present a major challenge for social protection programming in the region, along with the establishment of a unified policy decision, given the contextual diversity in the countries that compose the region.

Ten factors influencing nutritional outcomes during the first 1,000 days of life have been identified, presenting limitations, interventions and opportunities for nutrition-sensitive policies:

Complementary nutrition-sensitive interventions combat malnutrition’s underlying and basic causes, which align with social protection’s more long-term, transformative approach.

  1. Nutrition-sensitive social protection in Ethiopia, the Gambia, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia

Countries in Central and Eastern Africa face serious food security deficits and poor nutrition outcomes, and the limited social protection initiatives have faced particularly challenges in reducing stunting.  However, amongst these countries, good experiences have been implemented:

  • Ethiopia has pioneered one of the world’s most ambitious climate-change adaptation social protection systems (Productive Safety Net)—with significant food security results but limited nutritional impacts.
  • Kenya has innovated a Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) that aims to more effectively integrate social protection across the humanitarian-development nexus.
  • The Gambia, Mozambique and Zambia continue to face challenges in achieving the required scale to realize the necessary impacts.

These country experiences demonstrate the necessity to strengthen multi-sector coordination and cooperation, increasing synergies between programmes, along with the establishment of reliable integrated implementation systems.

  1. Sustainable School Feeding Across the African Union

Almost all school feeding programmes in the African Union target primary school students, despite the evidence demonstrating that nutritional impacts require earlier interventions. Due to the lack of funding, most school feeding programmes include geographical targeting mechanisms, often based on vulnerability assessments, and suffer errors of exclusion.

School feeding programmes can be found in most of Africa:


Homegrown school feeding programmes offer an opportunity for integration amongst sectors and involved institutions, representing the main policy focus for the region.  However, in order to further advance in the implementation of these programmes, a valuation of school feeding initiatives requires a better evaluation framework that understands school feeding from a comprehensive systems perspective, measuring programme results as enablers of inter-sectoral outcomes.

Food Security and Nutrition Sensitive Social Protection: Where to go next?

Policymakers are still uncertain on how to better translate food security into more satisfactory nutritional outcomes. To tackle this issue, policies must be more aware on the pressing needs of households, while prioritizing nutritional interventions, rather than focusing on an instrument-driven policy.

Furthermore, social protection policies in most countries are often fragmented and generically designed; the design and implementation of programmes needs to better reflect the context and the needs and possibilities of poor and vulnerable groups, ensuring adequate coverage and benefit adequacy.

To enable social protection to achieve better food security and nutrition outcomes, it is vital that the barriers which prevent households from utilizing transfers and improve their livelihoods & well-being, including food and nutrition are better understood and analyzed. These barriers must be addressed, namely through Cash + interventions, or additional services and investments are needed to enable individuals and households to make the most out of the support provided:

Finally, seven recommendations for nutrition-sensitive social protection were established:

Q&A session

The webinar was closed with a highly interactive Q&A session, which can be accessed here.