(originally posted in Eldis Communities)

Duncan Green (Oxfam) who’s known for his frank blogging set off the final day of the Social Protection for Social Justice Conference with some personal reflections. He was happy to find that unlike his earlier interactions with the social protection community it was no longer like going to a meeting of the Moonies – people were not just talking insularly about SP but were reaching out to other domains and considering SP+. In particular he liked the way that the political economy of change was being highlighted and saw real potential for greater understanding of the impact of planned social protection on autonomous protection activities. Duncan felt that more research on intra and inter household relationships along the lines of the paper being presented by Ian MacAuslanand Nils Riemenschneider would be great. Moreover, simply many more case studies of the impacts of social protection from beneficiary’s perspectives in Africa were needed to build and sustain political and policy commitment.

Interested to find out more about the social relations of social protection, I decided to make the ‘Social Vulnerabilities and Social Protection’ my choice of the three final conference panels.   Tessa Hochfeld (University of Johannesburg) looked at social constructions of stigma around the South Africa Child Support Grant. Her research is finding that narratives around beneficiary dependency and free-riding were shared by both elites and care givers receiving the grants, in what Tessa saw as globally conservative myths about the poor. Beneficiaries held both positive ideas about themselves as self-reliant individuals able to step out of poverty and critical perspectives on other beneficiaries that tended to blame them for their need to receive grants. The significance of this dualism wasn’t bottomed out, but rather Tessa highlighted that from individual beneficiary’s perspectives, especially mothers, the Child Support Grant does offer a different and less restrictive form of stigma to live with. This was especially by offering a choice beyond dependence on lifestyle choices were maintaining relationships with less poor partners increased women’s exposure to HIV and AIDs risks.

The second paper in the panel was by Ian MacAuslan and Nils Riemenschneider (Oxford Policy Management) on the impact of cash transfers on social relations. Not only the cash, but the whole project process impacts on relations. For example in Malawi targeting was seen to go against notions of collective community membership and a shared poverty. At a symbolic level as well, resentment of headmen and project committee members increased because of the status lift they were getting through running the cash transfer process at local level. Similar examples of relational and symbolic changes, with livelihood impacts, were observed in Zimbabwe and Kenya. As these changes are little researched so far participants were keen that OPM should continue to explore this area. Laura Camfield (University of East Anglia) presented similar findings, this time from India’s MGNREGA program. Poor management of the employment guarantee program was having big impacts on social relations, which the beneficiaries felt were a bigger issue than the economic benefits which social protection management tends to focus on. Women and children were particularly negatively impacted by these factors. In summing up the panel Charles Knox-Wydmanov (HelpAge) crystalised a number of these issues nicely by pointing out that monitoring and evaluation of social protection tended to focus on what was easily measurable rather than what was really important to beneficiaries (e.g. justice, collective ownership). Charles suggested new techniques were needed to measure the immeasurable, including positive changes in social relations when these occurred. In discussion participants emphasised that to understand the impact of cash transfers on social relations it would be important to measure changes in control groups and to explore evidence from cash transfers that had piloted more collective forms of cash allocation and distribution (e.g. in Zambia) to see if they made social relations stronger.

Three very full and rewarding days at the conference were wound up in plenary by reflections from five panellists. Rachel Sabates-Wheler (IDS) felt that the conference had helped to shape a more ambitious agenda for social protection that was not limited to instruments and was now looking at more structural drivers of inequality and rights. Thandika Mkwandawire (London School of Economics) argued that more focus on Africa’s political ideologies was needed to understand the outcomes of social protection. He also made a strong case for integration of complimentary literatures on the Developmental State and Welfare Regimes in the North. Andy Norton (University of Sussex) called for more research using extended time series data (such as that from the Young Lives project) and understanding indigenous knowledge of the political economy. He also argued that the SP sector must look more strongly at the growing low carbon and mitigation agenda that will soon be putting pressure on power and markets. Sarah Cook (UNRISD) emphasised several areas where more research was needed including reproduction, impacts, labour market links and the politics of financing. Jen Yablonski (UNICEF) argued that social protection has gone quiet on issues of power despite having justice as a core value. She argued that the SP community needed to reach out to make new alliances and to develop a new critical view of social relations. Timo Voipio (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Finland) summed up the panel with some of his own reflections. In particular he was concerned about the SP sector fragmenting and called for a focus on social protection for social transformation, especially for women, disabled and children. While feeling close to Timo’s points, I didn’t think the conference had spoken enough about what a good society was in different contexts to be able to strongly promote social transformation. Conversations about values in social protection events would be very worthwhile. The final contributions to the conference from the floor that struck me focused on a SP for Social Justice manifesto as a concrete and evolving (permanent Beta) platform for action, selling cash transfers to increasingly common centre right governments by focusing on evidence of robust contributions to Millennium Development Goal outcomes and looking at the political economy of care and reproduction.

My final contribution to the debate was to ask whether the individual size of transfers and the number of recipients in any community could itself be a route to social justice – was there a tipping point beyond which transformation snowballed? To put it another way was there enough cash getting to enough beneficiaries to make an irreversible difference. Others pointed out that we should not forget the social as well as the economic dimensions of such transitions, but felt it was a question worth asking, especially in the context of issues around graduation from social protection. An open and optimistic note for me to close my reflections on this very valuable conference.