Escaping the capability traps of social protection

With social protection increasingly being recognized as an effective instrument for sustainable development, state capability (or lack thereof), and the phenomenon of capability traps are increasingly being acknowledged as critical factors affecting the success or failure of social protection initiatives. This paper thus aims to answer the question of how governments and partners can overcome capability traps in social protection policy and implementation. To achieve that, the paper takes a qualitative approach in identifying common capability traps, delineating their key features and typification as per the existing literature. Through in-depth case study analyses of social protection initiatives in Ethiopia and Kenya, the paper provides a critical look at how common capability traps, as typified in the broader field of development, play out within the social protection sector, and how governments and partners have strived to overcome them. In both cases, it is observed that the majority of the capability traps (namely Isomorphic Mimicry, Premature Loadbearing, Institutional Ventriloquism, and Knowledge and Information Trap), play out in one form or the other, and both cases demonstrate the role of external donors in shaping programs and the decisions of governments. But while such form of influence is not uncommon, they are not inherently negative if external agendas are aligned and complementary to nationally defined objectives, and are cognizant of the significance of national ownership, political will, accountability to affected communities, and other sustainability and transition related concerns that can help avoid social protection capability traps. To conclude, the paper provides a series of recommendations, emphasizing the need for proactive risk mitigation, comprehensive knowledge sharing, and the prioritization of organizational capacity building. Furthermore, it advocates for a more adaptive and flexible approach to policy design and implementation and emphasizes the importance of adopting context-specific approaches to social protection policy that are rooted in an in-depth understanding of the distinctive political, economic, and social landscapes of individual contexts.