Unravelling Paradoxes: Social Protection for Inclusive Food Security and Nutrition


A country can only be food secure if all four dimensions of food security (availability, accessibility, utilization, and sustainability) are properly addressed. The surge in food prices the world recently experienced has drawn renewed attention to the economic dimension of food security, as an increasing number of families struggle to eat. A healthy, nutritious, and diverse diet remains beyond the financial reach of 3.1 billion people across the globe, as of 2020 (FAO 2022). Poor diets have become the leading behavioural risk factor contributing to the global burden of disease. In addition to insufficient calorie and protein intake, deficiencies in micronutrients are widespread, affecting potentially up to 2 billion people worldwide while the prevalence of overweight and obesity rapidly increases in low- and middle-income countries (Headey et al. 2023). Although social protection programs can be designed to alleviate the negative effects of economic downturns, they can only do so far in mitigating the inflating costs of healthy diets. While they can provide temporary relief to vulnerable populations, the design of these programs is sometimes not food security-oriented or nutrition-sensitive (Gentilini 2022). In other words, although necessary, social protection is not sufficient to guarantee lasting food security or enhanced nutrition outcomes. The literature thus suggests that additional strategies and interventions are necessary to tackle the complex challenges associated with the matter. 

In addition, even if targeting the poor and the vulnerable, social protection interventions are often not inclusive. That means that many particular groups can be left out of social protection schemes when inequalities intersect. During periods of crisis, the risks and inequalities faced by women, girls, and other marginalized groups are amplified. This also includes vulnerable populations such as children, youth, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as sexual and gender minorities (Jones et al. 2022; Rohwerder 2017; Pearce et al. 2016). In addition, both the presence and absence of access to social protection, in particular, social assistance, can disproportionately affect intersecting inequalities (Rohwerder and Szyp 2022). For instance, individuals who already face multiple overlapping forms of inequality may experience increased poverty and vulnerability when they are unable to access social protection. However, for those with intersecting inequalities, not accessing social protection programs can also serve as a strategy to manage risk by remaining unnoticed by program administrators and the government. Choosing to stay outside the scope of social protection programs may be a way for vulnerable populations to cope with the potential negative consequences of accessing such programs, such as exposure to violence, feelings of shame, community stigma, abuse and exploitation by program providers, and mental health issues (Rohwerder and Szyp 2022). Social protection programs do not inherently address intersecting inequalities. Instead, programming should actively consider the existence of intersecting inequalities, particularly when aiming to be food security and nutrition-sensitive, as different groups have varying needs throughout their lifecycles.

Considering such challenges, this webinar drew insights from the latest report by the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, titled "Reducing Inequalities for Food Security and Nutrition" (2023) to explore how inequalities within food systems hinder efforts to address food insecurity and malnutrition and to discuss the role of social protection in addressing this issue. The session focused on two intriguing paradoxes in the field. Firstly, it delved into the reasons why income security provided through social protection often fails to translate into food security and improved nutrition outcomes. Secondly, it examined why social protection interventions, even when targeting the poor and vulnerable, tend to lack inclusivity. The webinar offered compelling evidence and case studies from countries such as Mexico and India to illustrate the potentially transformative impact of social protection measures.

The webinar was part of the “Social Protection International Conference: Reimagining Social Protection in a time of Global Uncertainty” held at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, UK, and was organized in partnership with the World Food Programme.


Nick Nisbett, Professorial Research Fellows, Institute of Development Studies

Stephen Devereux, Professorial Research Fellows, Institute of Development Studies

Deepta Chopra, Professorial Research Fellows, Institute of Development Studies

Aradhana Srivastava, Gender and Inclusion Officer, WFP India Country Office

Francisco Antonio Meza Duran, Acting Head of the General Directorate of Food and Community Development, National System for Integral Family Development, Government of Mexico (SNDIF)


Juan Gonzalo Jaramillo Mejia,  Social Protection Programme Policy Officer, WFP

Alice Riche, Programme Policy Officer, WFP