Global Development Institute Blog

The following preface is taken from Cash Transfers for Poverty Reduction: An International Operational Guide (Routledge, 2023) by GDI’s David Lawson, Senior Lecturer in Development Economics and Public Policy, and Francisco V. Ayala, international social protection consultant and President of Ayala Consulting Corporation/SOPROEN. The book offers the first systematic discussion of the design and implementation of cash transfer programmes, including practical guidance for students and key stakeholders who are – or will be – responsible for designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating such programmes.

Below, David and Francisco discuss their motivations behind writing the book, which you can preview and purchase via the Routledge website. We’ve also just released a podcast discussion with Francisco, in which he discusses elements of the book in detail. Access the episode via the Global Development Institute podcast channel.

Many developing countries have, over the last few decades, provided social protection programmes that attempt to directly benefit poor and vulnerable people or households during normal economic cycles or emergency situations. Governments through their agencies commonly run sizeable social safety nets (SSNs) that comprise significant percentages of the population and often large proportions of the fiscal budget. Diverse interventions range from one-off unconditional transfers to conditional cash transfers, food distribution, public works, bursary, housing subsidies, among others. Regardless of the level of economic development of a country, and the type of political system, SSNs are present in all nations and play a central role in their social protection and emergency response systems. Such systems are here to stay, and will grow disproportionately in less developed countries—and in particular across Africa—due, in part, to high population growth rates that are likely to persist over the next few decades.

SSNs commonly have central goals that revolve around concepts of well-being and human development—the importance and complexity of such challenges are highlighted perhaps no more vividly than during exogenous shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic and social consequences that follow. However, a holistic intertemporal approach must be adopted in the planning, development, implementation and review of SSNs—as followed throughout this book. Although governments and international agencies are commonly rushed into testing and developing new and innovative SSNs to protect and assist their populations to adapt to whatever the ‘current crises’ that prevail, it is important to ensure that SSNs have an in-built adaptability, enabling change for future crises—natural disasters, pandemics, climate change effects and fragile resource situations.

Over the past 30 years, in particular, international development agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), consulting firms, individual consultants and thousands of government officials have been actively working in the field of social protection and have been responsible for the design, implementation and the running of SSNs. Countries can, in many cases, count dozens of simultaneously on-going national and regional interventions in the social sector. Such interventions should be effective, well run, and cost-efficient; however, the reality is different—there tends to be substantial operational unevenness among these interventions, with some run efficiently while others show important deficiencies in their operational and administrative processes, even when the same agency runs them. Although this book was not written to highlight how to design SSNs in response to COVID-19, the pandemic has shown that the majority of countries are not prepared to respond with effective social protection measures, whether this be to an exogenous shock, or other. Why is this happening in the social protection sector? Why do these SSNs remain so uneven though they are up and running and expanding rapidly?

Among other things, it seems that basic engineering principles and concepts tend not to be applied in the social protection sector. If basic principles were applied to a social protection sector as in different areas of the economy, SSNs should progressively transform into efficient and well-run operations. Governments and donors are frequently seen designing and implementing social protection interventions using techniques and instruments incompatible with the resources they are planning to transfer to potential beneficiaries with the coverage and complexity levels of their procedures. In simple terms, governments commonly decide to implement SSNs for, what might be, hundreds of thousands of households and individuals, without an expert lead and cross-disciplinary focus.

The last three to four decades have shown the development sector to have been inundated with consultants providing technical assistance in the design, implementation and evaluation of SSNs. The majority of these professionals were interested in being policy specialists or impact evaluation experts—very few consultants in the design and implementation activities first gained their experience managing these projects in government agencies and NGOs. No college or university offers degrees to train future specialists in the design and implementation of SSNs or on social protection engineering. International agencies such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have made some, very limited, efforts in this regards, over the last 20 years, with courses covering how to implement ‘building blocks’ for management information systems, registry, payments, and monitoring and evaluation. All too frequently, government clients are left dissatisfied with development consultants, frustrated with not getting the efficient SSN systems.

There is a clear need to train social protection engineers capable of designing and providing technical assistance throughout the project implementation and connect this to evaluation and further reform of the programme as and when shocks hit the economy. Understanding government, donors, beneficiary and vulnerable households is vital in providing an appropriate operation process of the SSN. Implementing appropriate SSNs requires going beyond a social development skill base, co-ordinating and integrating cross-disciplinary principles, and acting as coordinator and working along with other consultants such as IT engineers, evaluators and communication specialists. A social protection engineer coordinates with trainers, enumerators, payment officials, case management officials and the like, making sure the implementation goes according to the proposed design.

We live in complex adaptive societies in which any proposed design is outperformed by the changing realities of beneficiaries and the surroundings. Our society and even projects are nonlinear, and it therefore becomes very difficult to predict what will happen. To have better, dynamic and adaptable SSNs, consultants, government officials and others must be adequately trained to gain theoretical knowledge needed for how-to design and implement social protection projects and in general SSNs in whatever situation, including emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

We aim for this book to provide an invaluable resource for government, donors, NGOs and academics alike in providing the base for the future of efficiency in SSN design. Our intent is to assist professionals trying to learn more about the how-to; we aim to teach officials, bureaucrats and other students working in the social protection sector. We cover and combine basic engineering and development concepts of the main project cycle processes, including supply capacity analysis, targeting, enrolment, transfers, conditionalities, case management and monitoring. Not all processes were included in this edition; aspects such as national registries, integration of SSNs and communication strategies are worthy of further, and individual, focus. Many of these concepts, formulas and other instruments are treated in a systematic and standard manner, so practitioners can use them when they are assisting in the design and implementation of any social protection project.

We hope the book will be used as a reference whenever an official or consultant requires clarification or learning more about any specific process; it can also be utilized as a textbook in a course oriented to teach students on the engineering design of social protection projects. Having more, and better, trained social protection engineers, the social protection sector gains, countries will have increasingly efficient SSNs, and perhaps soon dynamic and adaptable SSNs even to respond to dramatic emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The social protection sector will start moving in the right direction faster only if international development agencies, government officials and consultants start understanding and working more on the how-to aspects of designing social safety nets.

Francisco V. Ayala and David Lawson

January 2023

From: Cash Transfers for Poverty Reduction: An International Operational Guide, First Edition by David Lawson and Francisco V. Ayala. Copyright (2024) by Routledge. Reproduced by permission of Taylor & Francis Group.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.

Feature image by rupixen on Unsplash.