Urban-sensitive social protection for social inclusion in africa and latin america

Devereux, Stephen Grant (1); Cuesta, Jose (2) (2018). 'Urban-sensitive social protection for social inclusion in Africa and Latin America' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, but most social protection programmes are designed for rural areas, and fewer poor urban residents than poor rural residents have access to social protection. Income poverty rates are generally lower in urban areas, but poverty is more complex and multidimensional than in rural areas, and in absolute numbers the urban poor are rising constantly, along with urbanisation trends. This paper examines the potential for social protection to contribute to human development and social inclusion, in urban contexts that are revolving rapidly and highly variable. In Africa, most cities and towns are characterised by high levels of poverty, informality, multiple deprivations and social marginalisation. Across much of Latin America, by contrast, cities and towns are experiencing rapid economic growth and citizens’ expectations of more generous social contracts.

Social protection is sometimes defined narrowly and instrumentally, as social assistance (non-contributory cash or in-kind transfers, usually targeted at the poor) plus social insurance (contributory social security schemes such as pensions and unemployment insurance). This paper favours a broader definition of ‘inclusive social protection’ that adds pro-poor access to services (education, health care, child protection, etc.) and social inclusion, all under a rights-based approach to realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) imperatives to ‘leave no-one behind’, reduce inequality and end all forms of poverty.

The New Urban Agenda (NUA), the outcome document agreed at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito in October 2016, offers important principles for the design and implementation of social policy in urban areas. The NUA’s ‘call for action’ focuses attention on low-income countries, and on residents of slums and informal settlements, migrants and refugees – who are often at risk of being excluded from public services such as social protection. Building on the ‘right to the city’ agenda, the NUA document emphasises a need for urban social protection to reach informal workers, to facilitate access to essential public services, and to realise the right to adequate housing for all. This is true across multiple settings, from legal and illegal settlers in African cities, to migrants moving from rural areas to megacities in Latin America or China, to Syrian refugees trying to survive in towns and cities throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Many urban social protection programmes are extensions or duplicates of rural programmes, in part as a result of successful rural conditional cash transfer programmes (CCTs), now extended nation-wide across Latin America, but urban-sensitive social protection needs to reflect the distinct vulnerabilities of the urban poor, which include homelessness, unemployment and social risks such as crime, substance abuse and transactional sex. Costs of living are also higher in urban areas, where residents need to find money for utilities and services such as rent, transport and water that are cheaper or free in rural villages. Instead of producing food for home consumption, urban residents depend on market purchases and are vulnerable to inflation and price hikes associated with macroeconomic policies or international shocks.

Designing social protection for urban contexts raises challenges for social inclusion, such as accurate targeting of the poor given the spatial geography of urban poverty, and setting appropriate payment levels given the high and variable costs of urban living. Popular targeting mechanisms such as proxy means tests, community-based targeting and self-targeting can be unfeasible or unethical and result in unacceptable exclusion errors. Paying higher social transfers in urban areas can be perceived as inequitable. Conditional cash transfers have achieved positive impacts on human capital formation in many countries, especially in Latin America, but enforcing conditions appears to undermine the right to social protection and may not work in contexts where service provision is weak.

Drawing on a desk review and a case study of Ghana led by the authors, this paper will develop a new conceptual framework for urban-sensitive social protection, it will highlight innovative approaches to urban social protection that address complex urban needs, drawing on experiences from countries across the world, and it will identify and attempt to resolve the contradictions inherent in delivering social protection in such a way that human rights and social inclusion are promoted rather than compromised.

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