CSSR welfare project gets vital UK grant

02 April 2013
Prof Jeremy Seekings
Prof Jeremy Seekings

UCT's Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR) has been given a R5-million grant by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the British government's Department for International Development (DfID) for a project on welfare policy reforms. The project is called 'Legislating and Implementing Welfare Policy Reforms: What Works Politically in Africa and Why' and is headed by CSSR director Jeremy Seekings.

The ESRC is the British government's funding agency for social science research, while the DfID administers Britain's overseas aid programme and commissions good research on development issues. Seekings says Africa - which is the region of the world where poverty is most resilient - includes some of the countries with the longest histories of social assistance in the global South (South Africa and Mauritius) and is the only region in the world where more is now spent on social assistance programmes than on social insurance programmes. "This research programme examines the politics of welfare programmes in Africa, i.e. what 'works' politically and why. The research will analyse the political conditions and factors that either favour or impede the enactment or implementation of social assistance programmes," he says.

The research will cover agenda-setting; elite and public opinion; electoral, inter- and intra-party competition; the roles of civil society, international organisations, and donors; and state institutions, technocrats and bureaucrats. "A crucially important question in the African context is how socio-economic inequalities and racial or ethnic diversity affect policy-making. Research will be conducted in mostly East and Southern African countries," says Seekings.

He says that over the past ten to fifteen years there has been an explosion of interest in addressing poverty in the short-term through cash transfers. These transfers come in three primary forms. Non-contributory 'social assistance', such as South Africa's old-age pensions and child support grants, are financed out of general taxation, and are often aimed at the poor. Contributory 'social insurance', such as unemployment insurance in South Africa, is funded out of contributions paid by working people in formal employment (and their employers).

"In practice, few poor people benefit from this, because few people in formal employment are poor," says Seekings. The third form, he explains, is workfare, including public works programmes, where people are paid cash in return for work. 'Developmental' initiatives - whether big infrastructural development, helping small farmers or improving health and education - are necessary in the medium and long-term, but in the short-term 'just giving money to the poor' has proved very effective at both mitigating poverty and at helping poor people stand on their own feet.

"Cash transfers were not included in the Millennium Development Goals, but now have strong support even within the World Bank and from major bilateral aid donors," says Seekings. "Africa has very limited social insurance systems - i.e. contributory systems of providing for old age, or insuring against the risk of illness or disability - but a growing number of African countries have major social assistance programmes," he explains. Seekings says while there has been a lot of good work on the benefits and design of cash transfers, there is very little work on what works politically, and why; i.e. on the political conditions that favour the introduction of cash transfer programmes.

"Here in South Africa we have the paradoxical situation that most government ministers and ANC leaders are ambivalent, if not hostile, about cash transfers, on the grounds that they encourage 'dependency'. The South African public is strongly supportive of cash transfers to the deserving poor, but critical of cash transfers to people deemed to be undeserving. Yet we have one of the most extensive and generous cash transfer systems in the world."

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