Putting Social Protection to Work: Complex Services in South Africa

From time to time, we here like to feature the voices of people we think are doing important and interesting work on topics of interest to us.  Today’s piece explores what is known as “social protection” or “cash transfers” – a method for improving life outcomes for low-income people – and it focuses on implementations in South Africa. Our author is Kevin Donovan, currently a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Cape Town, and a good friend of the Reboot family.


Consider Lindiwe, a middle-aged South African grandmother, responsible for both her daughter and grandson. Every month, she faces a steep struggle to buy basic supplies, let alone pay for school uniforms or save for special occasions. Like more than ten million South Africans, though, Lindiwe partakes in a monthly ritual.  Queuing at community centers and banks around the country – from the crowded informal settlements of Johannesburg to the remote farming communities of rural KwaZulu Natal – they receive a small grant of around US $30 to $120. It’s hardly enough to survive, but for those who qualify for the state-run pensions and income support grants, it makes a major difference.

This South African approach is part of a wider shift in poverty alleviation that one recent book summed up as “just give money to the poor.” If traditional development interventions are failing to meet the needs of the poor, the thinking goes, why not just provide the means by which they can meet their own needs? And what better means that cold hard cash? By the looks of it, many development institutions and governments find the logic compelling: a recent World Bank survey found more than 120 cash transfer programs in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

But joining this “quiet revolution” in cash transfer social protection is no simple matter. Put simply, governments like South Africa are faced with the question of how to link the national treasury to more than ten million pockets like Lindiwe’s.  For populations widely dispersed over variable geography, where infrastructure is missing or broken, and in contexts where crime and corruption are rampant, this is no simple matter. How countries like South Africa have been able to implement such a task is central to making cash transfers a viable means of poverty alleviation. And alleviate they do: detailed impact assessments (PDF) have found significant benefits accruing to beneficiaries and their kin. For most of this year, I have been examining the techniques through which this has been accomplished.

One of the key tensions to any development project is the relationship between centralized standards and localized diversity. At the end of apartheid, South Africa already had an extensive social protection program, but it was fragmented over more than 15 agencies that had significant variation in their delivery capacity. The democratic ethos of post-1994 South Africa demanded equal service, leading to the creation of an increasingly centralized social protection bureaucracy, with standards and norms set at the national level.

Some of these policies have done much to equalize access. For example, a previous child support program that was designed for nuclear families with a male breadwinner was phased out in favor of the current Child Support Grant that provides the benefit to the child’s ‘primary care-giver’. This approach is far more appropriate, given the fluid domestic situation in which many low-income children are found. In essence, this centralized fix created room to support children, regardless of how unorthodox their family situation.

Yet the ability for centralized policy-making to account for on-the-ground reality is constrained. In order to verify eligibility and avoid double-dippers, beneficiaries are required to present identity and other documents; however, a substantial portion of South Africans – especially the poor and rural populations the grants are supposed to target – lack such documents and the wherewithal to acquire them. This only exacerbates a situation in which allegations of illicit access to grants are rife. This has been one of the driving forces behind the adoption of a new biometric identification system for the millions of South African grant beneficiaries. Yet, ironically, the effort to harness new technologies in the fight against petty corruption has led to allegations of grand corruption: the contract awarded for implementing the new biometric payment system has wound up in court, casting a shadow on its potential effectiveness.

Although official policies and new technology often capture the lion’s share of attention in discussions of implementing cash transfer schemes, the South African program suggests a more mundane area cannot be neglected. While national standards have done much to equalize access in post-apartheid social protection, and while new biometric systems may prove fruitful, often the most important aspect for grant beneficiaries is the quality of service from street-level bureaucrats. Those on the frontline of cash transfer schemes are the mechanism by which the state interacts with citizens. As such, social protection schemes must walk a fine line between demanding high-quality compliance from their staff while also permitting enough personal discretion for them to respond effectively to the inevitable contingencies and crises. For example, hospital nurses are often the ones who encourage new mothers to acquire documentation and apply for the grant at the time of their child’s birth.  This small interaction can be just the encouragement needed to overcome a perceived (or real) barrier to access, especially for a caregiver who will likely have little interaction with state bureaucracy moving forward.  Identifying these fleeting moments – and encouraging their improvement – is the type of low-tech, meaningful change to the delivery of a service that needs to complement any new initiative. In this realm of human relations, precise techniques are likely to fail, demanding development services embrace a measure of complexity and a dose of humility.


Futher reading.