Social safety nets are on the rise in Africa, and continue to evolve from scattered stand-alone programs into dependable safety net systems.

Until recently, many African countries approached social protection on a largely ad hoc basis. However, when the global economic crisis threatened recent progress in poverty reduction, safety nets increasingly began to be viewed as core instruments for poverty reduction in the region.

Social protection programming has started to develop from emergency food aid programs to one-off safety net interventions, and then to regular and predictable safety nets, such as targeted cash transfers and cash-for-work programs.

Certain African countries, such as Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda and Tanzania, now seek to consolidate programs into national systems. There is progress towards articulating national social protection strategies, which will serve as the basis for effective safety net systems. But as our review shows, there is still a long way to go.

The most important rationale for safety nets in Africa is the large share of people who are vulnerable, poor and food-insecure.

Strong economic growth has not translated into reduced poverty levels for the bulk of the population, and the gap between the extreme poor and the rising middle class is growing in many countries.

Moreover, increasing frequency and severity of shocks repeatedly undermine any stable gains in poverty reduction. However, it is important to point out that safety nets in Africa cannot reach all poor people with the resources available. They must therefore focus on the extreme poor and other specific vulnerable groups for maximal impact and affordability.

Partly due to political, economic and socio-cultural differences, the policy frameworks and institutional arrangements governing safety net systems vary across African countries.

For instance, Middle Income Countries (MICs) in Southern Africa have strong government-driven systems based on horizontal equity, while in Low Income Countries (LICs), the social protection agenda tends to be more donor-influenced with most programs focused on emergency relief.

In those countries that have solid programs or systems in place, governments need to focus on improving efficiency and effectiveness, as well as linking programs. In countries currently concentrating just on emergency relief, complementing that with more development-focused social protection programs drawing on global best practice is needed.

While most countries have some plan of how social protection links to the overall development strategy, only about half of the 20 countries reviewed have a social protection strategy. Of these, only about half have an operational strategy. Many countries have sectoral strategies which have not been implemented. The countries which were able to move forward carried out a realistic costing exercise and clearly articulated resource envelopes.

Safety nets in Africa generally lack strong institutional homes and coordinating bodies, such as inter-ministerial steering committees. Government safety net programs are generally spread over a number of ministries, including Ministries of Social Affairs and Women and Family, which often lack significant political decision-making power. Scattered donor support has also left many LICs with a host of small and isolated program, without real champions for the overall safety net agenda. For instance, Liberia and Madagascar have more than five different public works programs, each operated by a different donor organization and government agency.

To generate the desired impact at a reasonable cost, safety nets need to be well targeted, cover the identified groups, provide adequate benefits and be flexible enough to adjust to changing needs and respond to shocks. But little is known about the effectiveness of most safety net programs in Africa as basic monitoring data are often unavailable, and impact evaluations are only now coming on stream with more regularity.

The limited monitoring and evaluation (M&E) information available suggests that coverage of poor and vulnerable people is low, and well-targeted programs are still rare.

African safety net programs have limited flexibility and predictability, which makes them less effective as crisis response mechanisms. There is very little information about the effectiveness of food distribution and emergency relief programs in West Africa, such as in Burkina Faso, Benin, Cameroon and Mali. Several countries are actively improving the effectiveness and scale of existing programs.

This includes scaling up programs that are relatively well-targeted (such as the programs by the Tanzania Social Action Fund or Kenya’s Orphans and Vulnerable Children Program). Also, more countries are moving towards building safety net systems and programs that are more predictable and can more flexibly respond to crisis. Ethiopia’s PSNP has long pioneered this approach.

Although current expenditures on safety nets are low, well-targeted safety nets are affordable in Africa, especially if inefficient universal and categorical spending can be reduced and resources redirected to targeted programs that reach the extreme poor and specific vulnerable groups in order to provide them with better opportunities to participate in inclusive growth. In LICs, as poverty is high and government income low, leveraging donor funds will remain important for some time.

Harmonizing and coordinating safety net programs into a system should be the core strategy for building safety nets in Africa.

This will involve consolidating and rationalizing programs, establishing institutional and coordinating bodies in charge of organization and planning, and building up a platform of basic operational systems such as beneficiary registries, targeting and payment systems. Further, systems need to be built during stable times to improve crisis preparedness.

The scale-up of safety nets should focus on programs that are well targeted and provide the most needed benefits, while gradually reducing regressive or ineffective programs. But for this, it is critical to improve monitoring and evaluation systems. Better core data – on number and type of beneficiaries reached – and information about program outcomes and impacts are needed in order to improve program design and coordination, inform decision makers, and attract financial resources and donor support.