The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.
The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Improving research infrastructure on social assistance

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Principal Investigator: Armando Barrientos. Lead Organisation: University of Manchester


Since the turn of the century low and middle income countries have introduced or expanded programmes providing direct transfers to families in poverty or extreme poverty as a means of strengthening their capacity to exit poverty. The rationale underpinning these programmes is that stabilising and enhancing family income through transfers in cash and in kind will enable programme participants to improve their nutrition, ensure investment in children's schooling and health, and help overcome economic and social exclusion. 

The expansion of antipoverty transfer programmes has accelerated. Estimates suggest that around 1 billion people in developing countries reside with someone in receipt of a transfer. As would be expected, the spread of social assistance has been slower and more tentative in low income countries due to implementation and finance constraints and limited elite political support.

Antipoverty transfer programmes in developing countries show large variation in design, effectiveness, scale, and objectives. In most countries, there are several interventions running alongside one another with diverse priorities and designs, and often targeting different groups. In many countries social public assistance programmes work alongside social insurance programmes for formal sector workers and humanitarian or emergency assistance. Social assistance focuses on groups in poverty, provides medium term support, and is budget-financed. 

The spread of social assistance in developing countries has revealed significant gaps in the knowledge, for example as regards their effectiveness, reach, and sustainability. Comparative analysis is essential to fill in these gaps and improve national, regional and global policy. For example, achieving a zero target for extreme poverty, as has been suggested in the context of the post-2015 international development agenda, would require effective and permanent institutions ensuring the benefits from economic growth reach the poorest. Social assistance is essential to achieving this goal. 

This research project focuses on improving research infrastructure on social assistance, in terms of concepts, indicators and data. This is urgently needed to support comparative analysis of emerging social assistance institutions. The project will identify indicators to assess social assistance programmes and will collect information on these for 2000 to 2015 for all developing countries. The database will be made available online to researchers and policy makers globally. 

As part of the project, the database will be analysed to examine patterns or configurations in social assistance programmes and institutions. Our interest is in identifying ideal types, broad features of social assistance programmes or institutions which enable reducing the large diversity of programmes and interventions to their core characteristics. These ideal types are social assistance regimes. Further analysis will test for potential combinations of political, demographic, economic and social factors linked to specific social assistance regimes. This analysis will allow us to examine what conditions can help explain the expansion of social assistance in developing countries; what factors influence the specific configuration of social assistance institutions in different countries and regions; and what conditions are needed for their effectiveness and sustainability. This research will throw light on the contribution of social assistance to the reduction of poverty and vulnerability and to economic and social development.

The outcomes of this project will have significant scientific and societal impact. The fact that the proposal is explicitly oriented to develop research infrastructure underlines our commitment to strengthening comparative research on social assistance in developing countries. As indicated in the Case for Support, the rapid expansion of social assistance in low and middle income countries has laid bare important gaps in concepts, indicators and data preventing progress in comparative research. Our proposal will contribute to filling in these gaps and encourage much needed comparative research. The harmonised database will be made available online to researchers globally. The potential impact of the harmonised database can be gauged from that of the 2010 Social Assistance in Developing Countries database which records 3380 views and 820 downloads in SSRN, one of the websites from which it is available. It has been used and cited extensively by researchers including 4 United Nations Reports. The harmonised database will have an even greater impact as it will provide quantitative panel data as a ready-made, accessible, and reliable input for comparative work.

The proposed Concept Note and Indicators are also expected to have a large scientific impact. In the empirical literature, there is fuzziness as regards the scope, objectives, and instruments of social assistance. Much greater clarity can be achieved through defining and classifying practice in more conceptually consistent terms. The proposed research will have a strong impact in this respect. 

The proposed research will also influence policy-makers and practitioners at the national, regional and global level through improving their understanding of the role, scope, and outcomes of social assistance and informing policy reforms. We will work in close contact with other institutions engaged in developing databases (e.g. World Bank, ILO, UNICEF), with a view to collaborating and influencing their work, aiming to achieve stronger and more effective data collection to support comparative analysis. The planned outcomes will inform policy makers at the international level, for example by measuring progress towards sustainable goals. This will reinforce impact on post-2015 international development discussions from a background paper for the High Level Panel Report by the PI. Collaboration with multilaterals and bilaterals through our Advisory Group will maximise impact. At the national level, the outcomes from the research will inform policy making through an improved understanding of the political and economic influences on the adoption and sustainability of social assistance programmes, especially in lower income countries where developments have been more tentative. At the regional level, our research will influence regional bodies' collection of information on social assistance. This will also apply to international NGOs like Age International.

In sum, researchers and policymakers at the national, regional and international levels will benefit from the research outcomes, through access to the harmonised database, improved information on social protection indicators, an improved understanding of the political and economic factors determining the sustainability of social assistance, and an improved understanding of the effectiveness of social assistance.

The global focus of this research project makes a key stakeholder workshop a less effective tool to maximise impact than visits to key organisations engaged in developing research infrastructure, the World Bank, the ILO, UNICEF, ECLAC, the Asian Development Bank, and Age International at the start of the project; engaging key representatives in an Advisory Group to guide progress with the research project. It will be important to maintain regular contact with research institutes and networks engaged in collecting social protection data for high income countries, including InGRID, CWED, and the OECD.

Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
Environment, Education and Development
Fund Start Date: 
September 1st, 2016
Fund End Date: 
February 28th, 2019
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: 
social policy
development economics
public economics
social assistance