Let me start with a paper shedding light on one of the most salient and debated design questions in social protection: would the transition from a targeted to a universal program hurt poor people (i.e., by shifting the focus from the bottom to the whole population)? A paper by Aizawa addresses the question by exploiting a reform in 10 Indian states that expanded eligibility for the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) conditional cash transfer. The shift implied reaching all women independently of socio-economic status and number of children. Results? The reform “… enhanced maternal healthcare use both among poor and non-poor women [while] poor women exhibit larger treatment effects for all the outcomes”. For example, maternal delivery in health centers was 13.2 percentage points higher in the lowest quintile and the highest quintile (see table above). In other words, JSY eligibility expansion did not make the poorest worse-off by exacerbating inequality in maternal healthcare utilization.

But how do you pay for larger-coverage schemes? A new paper by Coady and Le connects the dots between benefits and financing – specifically, it reviews trade-offs in targeting benefits and costs, and interprets them within the literature of optimal taxation. They thoughtfully conclude that “… the greater the reliance on universal transfers, the higher the premium attached to financing transfers through progressive income taxation and efficient consumption taxation”.

From current debates to their historical antecedents: did cash provided to American mothers between 1911 and 1930 affect incentives? Azier et al find they had no effect on work, marriage, fertility behaviors. But they did not improve economic conditions or longevity. (A note on historical context: before 1910, mothers who could not care for their children were forced to place them in orphanages. But children fared poorly. Hence states introduced the “Mothers’ Pension” cash transfer program to allow poor mothers to care for their kids at home).

Speaking of incentives, a DFAT-BETA report explored how behavioral insights can bolster the impact of the PKH program in Indonesia. As a result of the diagnostics, the research team designed two products to address maternal anemia and stunting, namely a children’s growth chart and a calendar card for pregnant women taking iron tablets.

Let’s move to Africa: a review by Gronbach reveals an increase in the use of electronic payment instruments for cash transfers, such as bank transfers, card-based payments and mobile money. However, she warns that “… transfers paid via electronic channels are often ‘cashed out’, rather than leading to greater financial inclusion or the use of digital financial services among beneficiaries”. More on payments: the SPACE initiative produced a useful updated matrix of payment mechanisms and examined their pros, cons and implementation requirements.

More on the region: in Zimbabwe, almost half of youth sampled by Chakrabarti et al experienced physical violence. Can cash transfers help? After 4 years, the authors showed that the HSCT program, a scheme providing cash plus supplemental information on child well-being and related services, reduced violence against children and adolescents by 19 percentage points. How? By improving food security, caregiving, and reducing work.

From ‘cash plus’ to integrated interventions: what if cash transfers are combined with training and other employment services? A compact brief by Escudero and Liepmann reviews 10 different models. These include Zimbabwe (TREE training for rural economic empowerment); Argentina (public works); Uruguay (PANES cash and public works); South Africa (wage subsidies); Central America (TechnoServe start-up support and business training); Peru (CIL-ProEmpleo labor intermediation); Sri Lanka (SIYB cash transfer combined with training and an investment grant); Tunisia (SIVP hiring subsidy); Chile (MESP cash transfer combined with start-up capital and training); and the classic six-country graduation study (Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, India, Pakistan and Peru). They conclude that the degree of effectiveness hinges on (i) institutional capacity and funding; (ii) correctly identifying target groups; and (iii) providing beneficiaries sufficient income support for allowing participation in activation programs. Bonus: Dutta et al have a note setting out early priorities for economic inclusion programs in the medium and longer-term recovery.

Following on point (i) above, institutions affect implementation in a very concrete fashion! Sarin et al study the role that municipal councilors play in social protection for children in India. Really fascinating the way in which they document how representatives describe formal and informal means of mediating in the implementation of these programs, especially those related to schooling. A similar effect is observed in Scotland, where Chambers et al shows that the effectiveness of the national universal school meal program implementation hinges on engaging a variety of stakeholders at different levels.

Let’s step back a second with two sobering papers. In the first one, Hajdu et al examine Child Grant cash transfers in South Africa and find a wide range of productive livelihood impacts, but also offer a clear-eyed view of structural limits: “… it is therefore crucial that the results suggesting positive effects of [cash transfers] on livelihoods are not over-interpreted to claim that cash transfers alone are able to move recipients out of poverty”. In another brief, Parekh and Bandiera use ASPIRE data on social assistance to conclude that “the poorest are left behind”.

Some interesting flagship reports! The UN has a great publication on “COVID-19 and social protection in Europe and Central Asia” (h/t Ian Orton); the EU Council is issuing a note calling for “Strengthening Minimum Income Protection to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion in the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond” (h/t Alessandra Marini); an OECD brief reviews paid sick leave issues and performance, and draws implications for Covid19 responses (as an Italian-Swedish, how not to appreciate figure 2!); and UNDP’s independent evaluation office set out 6 reflections on social protection, including around crises, employment, gender, institutionalization, technology and partnerships. Bonus on UNDP: the organization estimates that 644 million children are poor according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index, almost half of the total MPI-poor 1.3 billion people globally.

A noble text: a new paper by Banerjee et al explore the effects of messaging using the fame of… Banerjee. In India’s West Bengal state, 25 million people received an SMS containing a 2.5-minute clip delivered by Abhijit Banerjee. Messages encouraged reporting symptoms to the local public health worker, with an emphasis on health-preserving behavior (distancing or hygiene) and motivation for action (effects on everyone or just on self). The campaign doubled the reporting of health symptoms, decreased travel by 20%, increased handwashing by 7%, and mask-wearing soared by 2%. Bonus on Covid19 in Asia: what’s behind South Korea’s successful Covid management? Digital technology, efficient health governance, and civic partnerships according to a new paper by Lee et al.

Let’s keep the discussion on Covid19 going: Arezki and Deverajan argue that some countries are prematurely touting the idea of fiscal consolidation, which should instead be postponed until a recovery is well underway; Brown warns that there is no time for complacency in the Sahel region; Bishi et al examine high frequency phone surveys to assess how Covid19 affected Lagos traders, while a new WBG report assesses the impacts of the pandemic in Brazil and lays out adopted sectoral measures (see also handy PPT!) (h/t Pablo Acosta).

What new on resilience? Building on the Seyfert et al’s ‘unbundling’ framework (see here), the SPACE group produced a brief assessing the relationship between humanitarian assistance and social protection; Bodewig and Hallegatte draw from the experience of a dozen countries to illustrate how social protection can help countries prepare for climate change; and in an extensive review of the resilience literature, Barrett et al show that 40% of global resilience studies focus just on 6 countries, none of which is a fragile and conflict-affected state (i.e., India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania).

Assorted mix! Howard lays out good practices on the ethics of piloting and evaluating cash transfers (h/t Keetie Roelen); a Brookings piece by Benjamin and Mbaye discusses the informal sector in francophone Africa; excited by the growth in remittances? Well, 80% of that may be due to measurement instead of actual increases, argues McKenzie. So they probably didn’t surpass internal development assistance after all.

Finally, as Philip Alston stepped down from his role of UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, he released his final report and accompanying statement. He advocates for universal social protection and his main point is that “… a decade of misplaced triumphalism [on poverty reduction] has exacerbated the worst impacts of the pandemic”.


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 helps 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
      • In kind transfers
        • School feeding programmes
  • Labour market / employment programmes
    • Active labour market programmes / Productive inclusion
      • Job training
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Expenditure and financing
    • Monitoring and evaluation systems
  • Programme design
    • Targeting
  • Programme implementation
    • Benefits payment / delivery
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Universal Social Protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Environment
  • Health
    • Maternal health
  • Poverty reduction
  • Ghana
  • South Africa
  • Tunisia
  • Zimbabwe
  • Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Honduras
  • Peru
  • Uruguay
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Pakistan
  • South Korea
  • Sri Lanka
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's