What’s the latest on one of the most hotly debated choices in social protection? Grosh et al have a new book on targeting in social assistance. In over 500 pages, the volume includes an overview with 10 key messages followed by 8 chapters. These contain a series of essays on factors that shape choices around if and how to target (chapter 1); an update on coverage and incidence of social assistance across countries, as well as targeting cost considerations (ch2, see for instance figure 2.15, p.117 on unit cost of social registries); key choices to connect theory and practice (ch3); an overview of the role of delivery systems in targeting (ch4); selection of targeting methods (ch5); data and inference used by the different household-specific targeting methods (ch6); a primer on measurement issues (ch7); and finally, an exploration of machine learning for eligibility determination (ch8). Check out also the book’s two-page summary, a blog post by Rutkowski and Grosh, and recordings from this week’s launch.

That’s not all on targeting: a paper by Sabates-Wheeler and Szyp lays out key considerations on targeting practices in fragile settings, which are nicely summarized in table 2.2 (p.9-10). They present a series if interesting boxes (e.g., box 3.1 on refugees) and offer a good discussion on how political and institutional factors can influence targeting approaches (“… narrow – and common – focus on the technicalities of targeting leaves political and social considerations largely unattended”).

Bonus on fragile states: Harvey and Mohamed argue that “… social protection policy discourses are often characterised by a large degree of conflict blindness, ignoring why humanitarian aid was needed in the first place and explaining why, in many places, it has been needed for decades”. An important point to make, although “blindness” may work both ways (at times, humanitarian aid could seize legit social protection entry points more systematically).

More on humanitarian settings, with another longstanding question: what are the comparative effects of cash transfers versus in-kind food in those contexts? A review by WB/DIME, USAID and WFP shows that “… while effectiveness of cash and in-kind transfers is similar on average, the efficiency is generally in favor of cash”.

Further evidence on alternative transfers! Solar lanterns can serve as practical alternatives to kerosene. But how to increase their uptake? New study by Wong et al found that “… providing poorer households with additional cash or a voucher could substantially increase their willingness to pay for a solar lantern” (BTW, the effects seem particularly strong for vouchers). In Bangladesh, Ahmed et al after 4 years an early childhood development program improved “home environment” via cash transfers (in the North) and food assistance (South). Yet, limited effects emerge on child cognitive development and behavior, mostly among boys.

Bonus on food transfers in Asia: Bethmann and Cho show that abolishing school feeding in South Korea worsened malnutrition among female students (underweight rose by 4.5%) while their mental health also deteriorated (“crying without any reason”) (h/t Dave Evans).

Speaking of education, let’s take a look at conditional cash transfers: in Morocco, Gazeaud and Ricard found that such program increased school enrollment, but affected learning (test scores) little and even negatively. Why? “… because no accompanying measures were taken to absorb the extra influx of students”. And in another study on CCTs in the Dominican Republic, Hernandez et al show that providing transfers of larger size for high school education rises the chances of finishing high school (relative to not receiving such transfers) by 11.7-13.2 percentage points.

But transfers of larger size don’t always work better: in Somalia, a study by Farah et al compared cash transfers for entrepreneurship via a public lottery. The initiative provided grants of three sizes, including small ($175, delivered as one-off or 2 payments), medium ($500) and large ($1,000). What happened after 3.5 years? Small grants had no significant effect, and medium and large did so. Yet, medium transfers had a higher impact than large ones.

From formal to informal transfers in crises: In Indonesia, a study by Herskowitz et al shows that rainfall substantially increases both transfers sent and received by households. Those transfers reduce vulnerability of consumption to rainfall fluctuations by up to 11%; at the same time, the authors found no strong evidence on the efficacy of formal social protection in countering those crisis impacts.

Let’s discuss fiscal issues: a meta-analyses of 98 studies on fiscal multipliers by Gechert and Rannenberg found that spending multipliers tend to be significantly higher during crises (by about 0.7–0.9 units), while tax multipliers are not sensitive to economic conditions (and are generally lower than spending multipliers) (h/t Ruth Hill).

More on fiscal matters: new analysis by Nguyen et al reveals that “… while advanced countries react positively to financial crises by increasing social spending (…), these crises [especially debt] tend to have a detrimental impact on social expenditures in developing countries”.

And here is another insightful resource on the topic: Davoodi et al show that during the pandemic, fiscal frameworks made wide use of “escape clauses” which helped provide policy room for response. But the unprecedented fiscal measures led to massive deviations from deficit and debt limits. For instance, in 2021 over half of the countries with debt rules exceeded them by a median deviation of 50% of GDP in advanced economies and 26% of GDP in low- and middle-income countries (see figure 16, p.20, and figure A.1.1, p.30).

Let’s continue with the pandemic: Bird et al investigate the complex interactions between trust in the state, compliance with containment measures, and social protection in Latin America during Covid-19. They show that at the early stages of the crisis – or when governments announced social protection measures (not yet disbursed) and when uncertainty about the virus was greatest – people’s mobility increased. Hence, social protection scale up may, the paper argues, have created “… a public health moral hazard whereby citizens were more risk tolerant, especially during the first two weeks of the lockdown”.

An interesting paper on jobs: South Africa lowered men eligibility to social pensions from 65 to 60. New findings by Matsuda show that that 30% of labor force contraction from the policy stemmed from “anticipatory effects”, or behavioral responses driven by expecting the transfer.

What about delivery? Krishnamurthy and Cochenour make a simple and powerful pointy: universal social protection requires universal financial inclusion. In particular, they argue that universal ownership of bank accounts “… cannot be achieved without public provision or subsidy”. To achieve this in the US context, they suggest extending specific financial services that are currently freely offered by the Treasury (see p.77).

More on the US! What are the effects of cash transfers provided to veterans with disabilities? Silver and Zhang simulate than an additional $1,000/year would increase healthcare utilization by 2.5% and reduce food insecurity by 4.1%, homelessness by 1.3%, debts by 6.4%, and even mortality by 0.14%.

Finally, the 2-day conference on the state and social welfare in the 21st century will begin next week (h/t Nabila Idris).


Ugo Gentilini is from the World Bank’s Social Protection & Jobs global practice. The Social Protection Links newsletter, issued every Friday, distills and discusses a selection of curated resources on the topic, from academic articles to podcasts. The blog is republished on socialprotection.org each week, offering knowledge on social protection to help you stay on top of it — succinctly, regularly and frequently. Previous editions can be found here. 

To sign up to the newsletter or share materials, you can contact Ugo by email ([email protected]), Twitter (@ugentilini) or LinkedIn.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
        • Conditional cash transfers
        • Social pensions
      • In kind transfers
        • School feeding programmes
        • Voucher
  • Social insurance
    • Survivors pension
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Coverage
    • Expenditure and financing
  • Programme design
    • Targeting
  • Programme implementation
    • Benefits payment / delivery
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Informal social protection
  • Universal Social Protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disability
  • Education
  • Food and nutritional security
  • Health
    • COVID-19
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • Morocco
  • Somalia
  • South Africa
  • Dominican Republic
  • United States
  • Bangladesh
  • Indonesia
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's