Poverty and food security – a precarious balance for rural households

Social protection, nutrition and food security are intrinsically linked by the fact that poverty (and the inadequate quantity, quality or access to human, economic and institutional resources it implies) is a root cause and core driver of malnutrition. Poverty disproportionately affects rural populations: globally around 80% of extreme poor live in rural areas. In Europe and Central Asia, poor households account for 66% of rural residents (FAO et al. 2020). While producing more than 80% of the world’s food in terms of value and diversity, the rural poor and smallholder farmers often themselves remain food insecure (FAO 2016). 

Livelihoods and potential pathways out of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition of vulnerable rural populations largely depend on agriculture, agroecological systems and natural resources (FAO 2019). Therefore, they frequently become subject to risks and shocks, including animal pests, loss of harvests due to weather conditions or natural disasters. They also face difficulties in accessing markets as their production volumes remain insufficient and frequently have limited access to insurance, credit, land, labour and logistics. As a result, poor rural households often adopt “low-risk low-return” livelihood strategies that reduce their income-earning potential (FAO 2016), thus limiting the avenues they can take towards stronger food security and improved nutrition.

Hence, the production and consumption decisions of poor rural households are significantly linked to each other. Risks and challenges faced in their income-generating activities also affect their social and economic decisions. This means that they may have to take actions that have detrimental long-term effects on development outcomes (Dorward et al 2006) such as, for example, cutting down on food consumption, opting for staple rather than cash or nutrition-dense crops, investing less in health or education to spend more on food or spend more time to produce food. These short-term measures, in turn, often trap poor smallholders in inter-generational cycles of poverty, undermining their food and nutrition security and accentuating their vulnerability to future risks (Dorward et al 2006).


Leveraging social protection to improve food security of the rural poor

Despite the rapid expansion of social protection programmes globally over the past two decades, their coverage has not extended enough to reach most of the world’s population, especially those in rural areas. Smallholders and rural poor are frequently eligible to, or even sometimes covered, with some form of social protection, mostly social assistance. However, due to the various legal, financial, administrative and institutional barriers they cannot access or duly benefit from it (Allieu and Ocampo 2019), which further exacerbates existing risks and often increase their vulnerability to future risks. 

Evidence generated in recent years points to social protection’s positive impacts on nutrition, food security and productivity of the most vulnerable households in rural areas (FAO 2015). Access to predictable, regular and sizable social protection programs (such as cash transfers) can increase the purchasing power and agricultural production potential for such households (FAO 2017). In addition to the direct contributions to the diversity, safety and quantity of food consumed by each individual, social protection can also influence other determinants of malnutrition, for instance, practices related to care, sanitation and education. This is particularly critical in rural areas as such improvements can address the immediate and underlying causes of malnutrition. 

Equally, by sustaining income security social protection has the potential to address the basic causes of malnutrition of the rural poor, such as inadequate access to resources, including land, education, employment or technologies (FAO 2015). Social protection also generates productive and economic impacts, promoting investment in agricultural activities, purchase of agricultural inputs, and moving from casual labour to wage labour at on- or off-farm enterprises (Davis et al 2016).

Besides attributing to positive food security and productive impacts at the household level, social protection can also stretch its influence on the community as a whole. Social protection enhances liquidity and trade at a local economy level and stimulates demand for goods, including food, thus indirectly influencing food security. This, in turn, impacts the income-generating capacity of non-beneficiaries and, subsequently, creates local economic multiplier effects (Ajemian 2014). 

Despite suggestive evidence on the local economic multiplier, to maximize the impact of social protection on both households and communities, it is crucial to understand whether markets can support higher demand. Otherwise, the prospect of generating better outcomes is lost to a rise in demand that negatively impacts rural households benefitting from social protection programmes as well as non-beneficiaries purchasing power (Ajemian 2014). 


Maximising the impact of social protection through integrated programming 

Indeed, social protection can help to achieve remarkable outcomes in reducing poverty and combating food and nutrition insecurity of the rural poor. However, evidence has consistently shown that social protection can sustainably move people out of poverty, improve their food and nutrition security and contribute to local economic growth only if it is integrated into broader livelihood promotion and rural development strategies (Soares et al 2017) as well as supported with complementary measures and productive investment in agriculture (Levy and Robinson, 2014). 

Bringing together social protection with broader productive interventions can have synergetic effects on improving the overall livelihoods of poor rural households. Coordinated social protection and agricultural measure can support the rural poor in breaking the cycle of food insecurity, addressing basic, underlying and immediate causes of malnutrition, unveiling their productive potential and preventing the transmission of poverty across generations. 

Integrated programming can also support the extension of social protection to the rural population, thus guaranteeing at least minimum levels of income and livelihood security. This, in turn, will have positive impacts on the progressive realization of the right to adequate food (Ajemian 2014), and contribute to defining national social protection floors in line with the ILO’s Social Protection Floors Recommendation No. 202 (2012).



Social protection indeed has strong potential to reduce poverty and food insecurity among the rural populations. The extension of social protection coverage to rural areas and smallholder and family farmers ultimately leads to increased food purchasing and food production power, which results in remarkable improvements across multiple food security and nutrition outcomes. By stimulating the demand for food and non-food commodities, social protection also produces positive spillover effects on rural communities, helping to break the cycles of poverty and food insecurity. 

Nevertheless, the nutrition sensitivity of social protection and the sustainability of improvements in food security of the rural poor can only be achieved through integrated programming. Ensuring complementarity and coherence between social protection and agricultural or broader rural livelihood development programmes is key to achieving long-lasting and large-scale impacts of social protection on reducing rural poverty and strengthening food and nutrition security of poor rural households. 




This blog post is also available in Russian. Translation by the author.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social assistance - General
  • Labour market programs/Public work/Productive inclusion
    • Sustainable livelihood programmes
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Coverage
  • Programme design and implementation
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Agriculture and rural development
  • Food and nutritional security
  • Poverty
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's