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Looking afresh at social protection programmes, with a human rights lens


Human rights perspectives

Using a human rights lens to look at how cash transfer programmes are designed and implemented brings a number of considerations into view that would otherwise go unseen. A crucial one is that human rights principles should form an integral part of the key processes of cash transfer programmes and of the various design options to carry these out, writes Alexandra Barrantes.

So…how do targeted social assistance programmes fare on this matter?

By definition, targeting is not compatible with the right to social security for all, but it is usually brought in by countries to direct (or rather ration) the budget towards the poorest of the poor. Viewing targeted social assistance programmes this way, we find programmes founded on principles of efficiency and outcomes; and many times we don’t see much interest in the entire process of cash transfer programme design and implementation.

For example, proponents from the international development world pushing for targeting mechanisms contend that “Targeting is a means toward the end, which is poverty reduction” (Coady, Grosh, & Hoddinott, 2004:83). Thus, as Sen points out, the justification given is “the more accurate a subsidy in fact is in reaching the poor, the less the wastage, and the less it costs to achieve the desired objective. It is a matter of cost-effectiveness in securing a particular benefit” (Sen, 1995:11).

On the other hand, policies based on a rights-based approach stress the importance of not only the outcomes of programmes, but of the implementation process as a way of working towards the progressive achievement of economic and social rights. A rights-based approach points towards universal social protection policies, based on social rights and non-discrimination, not just achieving the ‘best possible’ results for a targeted part of the population (Lavergne, 2012). Given that human rights obligations – including the right to social security – should be taken into account in every stage of designing and implementing social protection schemes (Sepulveda, Carmona & Nyst, 2012), it is crucial that we do not lose sight of how the selection of recipients is undertaken.

Hence, a rights based-approach stresses the importance of looking into both the process as well as the outcomes (as a matter of fact, indicators that assess progress in social, economic and cultural rights usually look into structural, process and outcomes). How can you justify the outcomes (even if they were positive, which is in itself questionable – see this paper on the Proxy Means Test for more information) if the processes applied to reach those outcomes did not apply basic human rights principles as non-discrimination and equity, among other?

When assessing social protection programmes, and poverty reduction policies in general, development practitioners tend to focus on the objectives and final outcomes, especially in terms of human capital and socio-economic indicators. However, when we look at poverty reduction policies through a human rights lens, we are interested not only in the final outcome but in the whole process through which policy makers design and implement a certain methodology or a specific series of actions to reach those living in poverty.

Within the context of current discussions on targeting mechanisms used for poverty reduction programmes, the process is very much related to the desired outcome (in most cases, for poverty reduction programmes, it is improving the wellbeing of the “poorest”) in the most “efficient” manner.  See the figure above for an illustration.

As an example, when looking at targeting and Proxy Means Tests used for targeting mechanisms, from human rights lenses, several concerns come into view. The fact that they are complex tools, and that there may be a lack of capacity to implement them, may lead to exclusion errors that are discriminatory (A/HRC/11/9, 2009). From a human rights perspective, the mere exclusion of eligible people comprises a violation of their right to social security – and a lack of focus on under-inclusion has been criticised by the Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights (A/HRC/35/26, 2017).

It has been suggested that an appeals mechanism be devised that can override the PMT equation where applicants are deemed to have been unfairly excluded from programmes (Budlender, 2014). But if a household cannot comprehend a complex targeting mechanism, how can they appeal if excluded? On the other hand, it has been argued that if an appeal could be upheld based on any other characteristic, it would render the PMT ranking irrelevant (Freeland, 2014).

Alexandra Barrantes is Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways with experience in social protection, poverty reduction, economic, social and cultural rights, and development
Alexandra Barrantes is Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways with experience in social protection, poverty reduction, economic, social and cultural rights, and development

These issues with targeting shed light on the need for human rights principles to be incorporated into the entire design and implementation process. What this means in practical terms is that eligibility criteria for a programme should be made clear so that they do not discriminate against possible recipients or stigmatise recipients. It means that the chosen method should avoid errors; that proper complaints and redress mechanisms should be established; and that proper access to full and clear information is put in place.

As has been argued, while targeting is treated as merely an administrative method, “the choice between targeting and universalism is quintessentially a political economy problem: it involves the choice of instruments for redistributing resources in society” (Mkandawire, 2005:12).

Governments and advising development partners have a clear responsibility to choose the most appropriate instruments and cannot de-politicise what is essentially a social question with an overly technical approach. They are responsible for guaranteeing the realisation of economic and social rights, and this means that they cannot overlook the process by which beneficiaries of social protection programmes are reached and engaged.






  • Dear Alexandra,

    you write ‘By definition, targeting is not compatible with the right to social security for all’. I disagree. Article 9 of the Social Covenant does not necessitate universal welfare benefits. The General Comment on the Article (UN 2008) allows for means-tested benefits. Barrientos and Hulme (2008: 324) made this clear by distinguishing between ‘the right to protection against poverty’ and ‘the right to a given benefit’, holding that the former can be realized in a universalistic way by means-tested programmes. There is no human right to a certain sum of money if persons are not in need. There may be diverse arguments in favour of universal benefits (in my view much depends on the context), but human rights are not among these arguments (as, f.e., also conceded by FIAN).

    Best, Lutz


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