Icon Our Work

Three reasons community-based targeting is a threat to social stability 


Guest blogger Kia Howson shares why using community-based targeting to define who receives social security can come at a price for many.

The number of conflict-affected countries has more than doubled over the last decade.[1] Many low- and middle- income countries are unable to respond to the multitude of challenges they face, such as rising inflation, rising food insecurity and rising inequality. Fragility and conflict are often exacerbated by these global challenges, particularly in contexts where poverty and vulnerability are high and social cohesion is already very weak. 

There is a globally recognised need to address and respond to the inequalities that put specific groups at long-term risk, such as marginalised communities, women and youth.[2] The concept of a ‘humanitarian-development-peace nexus’ has developed to reflect this urgency. The nexus approach seeks to address the systemic causes of conflict and vulnerability such as injustice, inequality and poverty in order to reduce the risk and need for humanitarian assistance.[3]

Global experience tells us that a bigger investment in social security plays a significant role in addressing fragility, because of its potential to promote nation-building, enhance social cohesion and reduce poverty.[4] In any society, social cohesion refers to the vertical relations between citizens and the state, and the horizontal relations between citizens themselves. These relations include trust, an inclusive identity and cooperation for the common good.[5]

Community-based targeting is intended to build on community cohesion by relying on social networks for the targeting of in-kind – or in recent years – cash transfers. It is no surprise, then, that it has been heralded as the panacea for identifying the most vulnerable in humanitarian and emergency contexts. Community-based targeting takes multiple forms but may include community members deciding among themselves who should be a recipient of in-kind or cash transfers.  

This participatory approach is well intentioned – community-based targeting is believed to empower communities, who have better information about themselves than external facilitators, to target the most vulnerable households.[6]Community-based targeting also allows information about household wealth and vulnerability to be generated relatively quickly, which has been particularly helpful in humanitarian and emergency contexts where income data is often conflicting, unreliable and limited.

The three social costs of community-based targeting

Community-based targeting is, in part, based on the perception that communities are homogenous and harmonious entities.[7] In reality, most communities involve some level of social tension, especially those that have been affected by conflict, population movements and displacement. Involving communities in selection processes paradoxically has several social costs with detrimental consequences for social cohesion: among these are the three outlined below.

Cost one: elite capture and nepotism

Community-based targeting generally lacks public accountability or formal grievance processes, making it highly vulnerable to elite capture[8] and nepotism[9]. A lack of transparency, at the community level, in targeting beneficiaries can fuel feelings of unfairness and resentment, fragmenting social relations. Or, even worse, when community members think the reason those selected is because of nepotism, violence may be used as a means of redressing inequalities. In Indonesia, the perceived arbitrary allocation of benefits and alleged direct observations of elite capture resulted in violence against community leaders responsible for allocating cash benefits under the Bantuan Langsung Tunai programme.[10]

Cost two: social exclusion

Community-based targeting allows for the exclusion of marginalised groups, such as ethnic or religious minorities, people with disabilities or recently settled internally displaced persons, because they are perceived as not belonging to the core community. Social exclusion is known to have affected the distribution and redistribution of entitlements. For example, in Somalia, many marginalised groups, such as displaced Bantu groups and Somalis of the “wrong” clan affiliation were excluded from in-kind transfers, most notably by gatekeepers and clan elders.[11]

Cost three: erosion of social capital

Community-based targeting makes a clear and public division between recipients and non-recipients in a way that risks being perceived as subjective. Creating ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in this way risks eroding social capital – the relations of trust and reciprocity that bind individuals in a society together.[12] When community members fail to understand why their neighbour won and they lost, conflicts can arise particularly when most community members are unable to meet their basic needs. A 2007 evaluation of community-based targeting approaches to food aid distribution in Somalia, commissioned by WFP, found that using local leadership to target the “most vulnerable” for in-kind benefits resulted in significant instability. There were 15 major security incidents in which militia and civilians were killed, and food packages were pillaged.[13] There are few publicly available evaluation reports of community-based targeting in recent years. 

There have been efforts to improve community-based targeting. Community endorsements of beneficiary lists through community meetings were introduced to reduce corruption. This step may be an improvement but carries a high risk as communities come together to verify those who are deserving and not deserving in a way that risks becoming subjective. Indeed, a source recently working on implementing a CBT programme in a conflict-related humanitarian emergency reported that the public disclosure and verification of beneficiaries for a cash benefit resulted in one community member being shot by another.[14]

The social costs of community-based targeting really do have a cost to long-term development objectives. Social exclusion, the erosion of social capital and perceptions of corruption work in tandem to exacerbate socio-economic inequalities. This can contribute to broader development challenges.  Vulnerable youth who are excluded from communities and basic services are more at risk of radicalisation and recruitment to armed groups.[15] In Somalia, disenfranchisement, exclusion and marginalisation are at the centre of the recruitment of hundreds of despondent youths by the radical youth wing of Al Shabaab.[16]

The way forward 

The social costs of community-based targeting are simply too dangerous to ignore. We have a responsibility to design and implement selection criteria and processes that are as objective as possible to avoid unnecessary confusion, social exclusion, the erosion of social capital and elite capture. If the humanitarian and development community are serious about advancing the nexus, in a way that upholds dignity at the community level, they must address these costs urgently.

At its core, community-based targeting is a well-intentioned methodology for identifying vulnerability. It is time to shift the paradigm from attempting to identify who in poor communities is the most vulnerable – which often requires reliance on subjective means – to identify when community members are likely to be most vulnerable – which can be identified through objective means. For instance, the first 1000 days are the most vulnerable days of any human’s life. Replacing community-based targeting with more inclusive approaches to objectively verify age, disability, pregnancy or birth, will remove unnecessary confusion around benefits and advance social cohesion, rather than fragment it. Reconceptualising vulnerability in this way reduces the risk of social exclusion and elite capture because the mechanisms used to identify someone’s age, gender or birth can be objective and transparent. 

Both rethinking vulnerability and using more inclusive, objective and transparent approaches to make social security policy decisions can promote social cohesion – because everyone in the community can win, and if they don’t, they understand why.

[1] The World Bank (7 March, 2022). Remarks by World Bank Group President David Malpass at Fragility Forum 2022: Development and Peace in Uncertain Times. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2022/03/07/remarks-by-world-bank-group-president-david-malpass-at-fragility-forum-2022-development-and-peace-in-uncertain-times – :~:text=The number of “conflict countries,efforts to end extreme poverty.

[2] Fanning, E., & Fullwood-Thomas, J. (2019). The Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus: What does it mean for multi-mandated organizations?. Oxfam. Available at: https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/620820/dp-humanitarian-development-peace-nexus-260619-en.pdf

[3] Fanning, E., & Fullwood-Thomas, J. (2019). The Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus: What does it mean for multi-mandated organizations?. Oxfam. Available at: https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/620820/dp-humanitarian-development-peace-nexus-260619-en.pdf; Inter-Agency Standing Committee and UN Working Group on Transitions Workshop, 20-21 October 2016, Background paper on Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus, https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/system/files/peace-hum-dev_nexus_150927_ver2.docx

[4] UNESCAP (2015). Time for Equality: the role of social protection in reducing inequalities in Asia and the Pacific. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific; Schjod RJ. Impacts of Social Protection on Social Cohesion and Reconciliation. London: HelpAge International. 2021.

[5] Leininger, J., Burchi, F., Fiedler, C., Mross, K., Nowack, D., von Schiller, A., Sommer, C., Strupat, C. & Ziaja, S. 2021a. Social cohesion: A new definition and a proposal for its measurement in Africa (Discussion Paper). Bonn: German Development Institute.

[6] WFP, ‘Community-Based Targeting Guide’, February 2015, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000110378/download/.

[7] Kidd, S. and Athias, D. (2020). Hit and Miss: An assessment of targeting effectiveness in social protection with additional analysis. London, Development Pathways. Available at: https://www.developmentpathways.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Hit-and-Miss-March13-1.pdf.

[8] Community facilitators using their position to influence the allocation of benefits for personal gain

[9] Community facilitators allocating benefits based on preferential personal relationships

[10] Cameron, Lisa & Shah, Manisha. (2011). Mistargeting of Cash Transfers, Social Capital Destruction and Crime in Indonesia. University of California. Los Angeles. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228959855_Mistargetting_of_Cash_Transfers_Social_Capital_Destruction_and_Crime_in_Indonesia

[11] Maunder. N., et al. (2018). Somalia: An evaluation of WFP’s Portfolio (2012-2017). Vol 1. WFP Office of Evaluation. Available at: https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000099880/download/

[12] Attanasio, Orazio Luca Pellerano and Sandra Polania (2008). Building Trust? Conditional Cash Transfers and Social Capital. IFS Working Papers (EWP08/02), Institute for Fiscal Studies, London

[13] Jaspars and Maxwell, ‘Targeting in Complex Emergencies: Somalia Country Case Study’, Feinstein International Centre, July 2008. Available at: https://fic.tufts.edu/publication-item/targeting-in-complex-emergencies-2/.

[14] Interview conducted with humanitarian. Source requested to remain anonymous.  

[15] OECD (2011), Reducing the Involvement of Youth in Armed Violence: Programming Note, Conflict and Fragility, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264107205-en

[16] Botha., A. and Abdile., M. (2014). Radicalisation and al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia. Institute for Security Studies. 266. Available at: https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/184703/Paper266.pdf