Despite some progress, social protection policies and programmes have struggled to take hold throughout sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Only 12.9% of the region’s total population is currently covered by at least one social protection benefit (World Social, 2017). Adding to the complexity of the issue, models that are proven to work in high-income countries (i.e., countries with a gross net income (GNI) per capita of US$12,055 or less in 2017, as defined by the World Bank Group) have increasingly failed to address similar issues of poverty and vulnerability in low-income countries (i.e., countries with a GNI per capita of US$995 or less in 2017, as defined by the World Bank Group) (Classifying Countries, 2019). This implies that a one-size-fits-all approach to providing social protection to individuals who are poor and vulnerable is bound to be inefficient (Chitonge, 2012).

In this article, social protection is viewed as a comprehensive measure to protect citizens, who are vulnerable to poverty and socially excluded, by implementing a range of policies and programmes. This topic is important as social protection is widely recognised as critical for inclusive and sustainable social and economic development considering policies and programmes are designed to improve the lives of individuals at the lower end of the income distribution.


Social protection in sub-Saharan Africa

Around the turn of the 21st century, SSA countries began to show considerable progress on the social, economic, and political fronts. However, progress has been uneven – some nations are growing strongly while others are stuck in various stages of conflict and crises, chronic poverty, and low capacity (About Africa, 2019).

Ironically, the low-income countries in need of social protection policies and programmes to help citizens recover from shock and crises are often the same countries that can least afford recommended protective and preventative measures. Some countries, such as South Africa, recognise social protection as a human right and an investment in citizens that yield positive benefits to society as a whole. Others are doing little to adapt proven-to-work measures that would promote inclusive growth and sustainable development within a specific country’s socio-economic and political framework.

Challenges in the region

SSA is a diverse region with over 3,000 distinct ethnic groups speaking more than 2,100 different languages. The region faces many challenges, including rapid population growth, economic depression, disease, conflicts, political instability, widespread poverty, and deepening unemployment, resulting in increased migration and refugee flows.


  • Rapid population growth

As of 2019, about 1,078,106,193 people live in SSA (Sub Saharan, 2019). The region is expected to reach more than two billion, or 22% of the world population, by 2050. By 2080, SSA is projected to be the only region in the world with a population that is still growing (World Population, 2017).


  • Conflict and crises

Interstate wars have been on the decline for some time. However, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) shows large-scale military engagements throughout Africa are being replaced by smaller, violent encounters involving multiple stakeholders (Conflict Trends, 2017). One of the results of ongoing conflict and violent clashes is forced migration.


  • Forced migration

In the most recent Global Report on Internal Displacement, data show 28 million new displacements associated worldwide with conflict and disasters in 2018. SSA accounts for 36% of global displacement, with Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Somalia, and the Central African Republic (CAR) being the worst affected. These high numbers are also influenced by environmental degradation, weak institutions, persistent poverty, and the region’s overall inability to successfully channel economic growth into sustainable development (Piecing Together, 2018).


  • Chronic Poverty

Unlike the rest of the world, poverty in SSA shows no signs of slowing down. The average poverty rate stands around 41%. Furthermore, 27 out of the world’s 28 poorest countries are located in this region, all with a poverty rate of about 30% (Patel, 2018). World Bank forecasts further indicate that by 2030, nearly nine in ten extremely poor people will live in SSA (PovcalNet, 2019).



Despite shared security concerns, each SSA country comes with its own set of social, political, and economic factors that influence risks and vulnerabilities as it relates to social protection. In such a diverse region, relying on general indicators of economic or political development will not provide guidance on designing and implementing social protection that caters to any specific country’s needs (Hickey, 2018). Instead, country-specific social protection interventions that are well-targeted and tailored in design can positively benefit society. Accordingly, the expansion of social protection has been more or less successful depending on the country along with the level of government commitment to make programmes work.


Key concepts and definitions

International institutions, including the World Bank and United Nations, offer similar definitions of social protection. This is reflected in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda Goals for 2030. Under the co-leadership of the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), universal social protection (USP) is viewed as “a nationally defined system of policies and programmes that provide equitable access to all people and protect them throughout their lives against poverty and risks to their livelihoods and well-being.” Furthermore, USP2030 explains how “protection can be provided through a range of mechanisms, including in cash or in-kind benefits, contributory or non-contributory schemes, and programmes to enhance human capital, productive assets, and access to jobs.” This includes adequate cash transfers for any individual in need, “especially children; benefits/support for people of working age in case of maternity, disability, work injury, or those without jobs; and pensions for all older persons” (International Conference, 2019).

In their working paper, Stephen Devereux and Rachel Sabates-Wheeler refer to transformative social protection as “all public and private initiatives that provide income or consumption transfers to the poor, protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks and enhance the social status and rights of the marginalised; with the overall objective of reducing the economic and social vulnerability of poor, vulnerable, and marginalised groups” (Devereux et al., 2014).

Over the past two decades, it has become clear that a one-size-fits-all policy approach is inadequate. The focus of the state should be on setting clearly defined goals, and so, the definition becomes a guideline for the state to develop programmes and policies that would benefit a specific group of people. More importantly, policies and programmes must address the structural causes that trap people into poverty and vulnerability in the first place (Roelen, 2014). Theoretically, social protection is perceived as part of a ‘state-citizen’ contract in which states and citizens have rights and responsibilities to each other (Harvey et al., 2007); however weak state capacity, corruption, and political instability limit states’ effectiveness and changes priorities.



In summary, social protection policies successful in one country (e.g., Canada) are not necessarily effective in another country (e.g., Cameroon). Improving the living conditions of the most marginalised and vulnerable individuals in society requires well-targeted social protection in addition to government commitments, investment, and policy options adapted for country-specific needs (Taylor, 2008). Clearly, policies will differ depending on each country’s objectives. Reviewing regional trends are helpful; however, not addressing structural barriers within each state leads to the perpetuation and reinforcement of patterns of disadvantage and inequality (Roelen, 2014).



ACLED Data (2017). Conflict trends (no. 55) real-time analysis of African political violence, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Accessible:

Chitonge, H. (2012). Social Protection Challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa: ‘Rethinking Regimes and Commitments’, African Studies, 71:3, 323-345, DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2012.740878

Devereux, S. and Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2004). Transformative Social Protection, UNICEF, Institute of Development Studies, IDS Working Paper 232. Accessible:    

GSDRC Applied Knowledge Services. What Is Social Protection?. Accessible:   

Harvey, P., Holmes, R., Slater, R. & Martin. (2007). Social Protection in Fragile States, London: ODI. Accessible:

Hickey, S. et al. (2018). The Negotiated Politics of Social Protection in Sub-Saharan Africa, United Nations University, UNU-WIDER. Accessible:

Patel, N. (2018). Figure of the Week: Understanding Poverty in Africa, Brookings Institute, Brookings. Accessible:

Roelen, K. (2014). “Challenging Assumptions and Managing Expectations: Moving Towards Inclusive Social Protection in Southeast Asia”, Southeast Asian Economies, vol. 31, no. 1, 2014, p. 57., doi:10.1355/ae31-1d.

Sub Saharan Africa Population (2019). Sub Saharan Africa Population 2019, Demographics, Maps, Graphs. Accessible:

Taylor, V. (2008). The study on social protection systems in Africa: An overview of the challenges, Paper prepared for the First Session of the AU Conference of Ministers in charge of social development held from 27 to 31 October 2008 in Windhoek, Namibia.

The World Bank Group. Classifying Countries by Income, WDI - Classifying Countries by Income. Accessible: Nations (2017). World Population Prospects - Population Division, United Nations. Accessible:

The World Bank Group (2018). Piecing Together the Poverty Puzzle. Accessible: 

The World Bank Group. PovcalNet: An Online Analysis Tool for Global Poverty Monitoring. Accessible: United Nations Development Programme/UNDP. About Africa, UNDP in Africa. Accessible:

Universal Social Protection 2030. World Social Protection Report Data 2017-2019. Accessible:

USP2030. The International Conference on Universal Social Protection/USP2030. Accessible:



Social Protection Programmes: 
  • All programmes
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Social protection definition and features
  • Targeting
  • Universal Social Protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Human rights
  • Poverty
  • Risk and vulnerability
  • Social inclusion
  • Africa
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
The views presented here are the author's and not's