Extending social protection to end poverty and hunger

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The benefits of achieving zero hunger for all by 2030 can only be gained through immediate and determined action that responds to food security issues, says Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, World Food Programme
The global goals set the bar for sustainable development deservedly high – to end poverty and achieve zero hunger by 2030. In setting this ambitious target, leaders from every corner of the world established two important precedents. First, they acknowledged that persistent failure to end poverty and hunger will render global peace and stability forever elusive. Second, by giving just 15 years to this important task, leaders confirmed that ending poverty and hunger is both urgent and achievable – with comprehensive, collective and determined action.

Without question, increased investment in social protection is vital to the fulfilment of the goals’ promise. Social protection systems are critical vehicles to end both poverty and hunger – a fact fully recognised by the G20 Food Security and Nutrition framework. By fostering people’s own unique abilities to participate in their society and economy, social protection delivers a multitude of beneficial outcomes. Evidence clearly demonstrates adequately resourced and well-designed social protection systems not only directly reduce hunger, but they also facilitate better nutrition, health and education outcomes with significant social and economic dividends.

Social protection has long been at the core of food security policies successful at reducing hunger and poverty. Since the beginning of the 20th century, government-based systems in both developed and developing countries have enabled people to access food sufficient to meet their minimum dietary requirements while simultaneously acting as a critical source of protection for people exposed to recurrent shocks and to those suffering from chronic socio-economic vulnerabilities. To ensure nationwide durable benefit from economic growth, developing country governments increasingly recognise they must allocate additional resources to reach and assist those most in need, who might otherwise be left behind.

Currently more than 1.9 billion people in low- and middle-income countries benefit from social protection. Protection takes many forms and can include conditional and unconditional cash-based transfers, food and in-kind transfers, school feeding programmes, public works schemes and fee waiver programmes.

The multiplier effect
Because of proven high-returns, governments increasingly utilise cash-based transfers specifically designed to tackle the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition. In addition to improving food security and nutrition, cash-based approaches also result in major economic benefits. Evaluations of cash-transfer programmes in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Malawi, Mexico, India and Colombia have demonstrated economic multiplier effects of two to three dollars for every single dollar distributed.

Most programmes can be easily adapted to promote food security and nutrition. For example, the integration of nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive activities within safety net programmes can dramatically accelerate progress in reducing undernutrition. In the Dominican Republic, the World Food Programme (WFP) collaborated with the government to integrate nutrition components into the national Progresando con Solidaridad scheme. By introducing nutrition education, growth monitoring and micronutrient supplementation for children aged six to 59 months, the prevalence of anaemia in children dropped by 50% within just two years.

Given the short time frame required to reach the goals, existing schemes must be rapidly revised and expanded, while new schemes must be promptly deployed. Once again, the evidence proves it is possible to rapidly extend protection to everyone in need. In 2013, India introduced the National Food Security Act, which made the right to food legally enforceable. A rights-based policy, the act was designed to provide staple foods for more than 800 million people throughout the country. It has now become the largest food safety net in the world. India’s example demonstrates it is possible to rapidly extend cover to everyone in need, while also introducing specific measures to improve food security and nutrition.

Social protection has also proven its worth in times of crisis. Well-designed systems are quickly adapted and deployed during emergencies. To ensure a smooth and well-coordinated nationally led response, WFP works with governments by building national and local capacities to respond, strengthening resilience to shocks, and – when possible and appropriate – complementing national implementation capacity. When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, much of WFP’s response was delivered through the existing national system. Despite the widespread damage to infrastructure, WFP and its partners were able to reach 2.8 million people with assistance within the first 30 days of the response.

Given the impact of such programmes, extending social protection and adopting a nutrition-sensitive approach are both effective and efficient means of promoting long-term development while addressing immediate food and nutrition needs.

Although it is too often considered an expense, social protection is in fact a high-return investment, which results in significant short-, medium- and long-term benefits for societies and the world at large. As rural incomes rise due to targeted, additional, pro-poor rural investments, individuals should experience a corresponding decline in the amount of social protection programme support required.

The scale of investment required to expand social protection pales in comparison to hunger’s devastating impact. Adequate investment will require multi-year financing as well as technical assistance. The recently published Achieving Zero Hunger report noted that to eliminate hunger by 2030, much more investment will be needed than the currently provided business as usual scenario. The report stated that an average of $267 billion is required between 2016 and 2030 to fund social protection and additional targeted pro-poor investments. This price tag is just 0.3% of world economic output in 2014 – a sum representing less than 8% of hunger’s estimated $3.5 trillion yearly cost. From the total investment of $267 billion, some $116 billion is needed for social protection programmes each year, of which $75 billion is required for rural areas – where most of the poor live. Making these annual investments will quickly enable people to lift themselves out of hunger.

Yet despite the relative affordability of extending social protection to everyone affected by hunger, many countries will likely find such investment beyond their reach. Commitment to adequate financing offers high return on investments (not expenses) for governments, with clear short-, medium- and long-term benefits for society at large. As rural incomes rise as a result of targeted, additional pro-poor rural investments, individuals should experience a corresponding decline in the amount of social protection support required. To overcome this, proposals to expand existing programmes and introduce new ones must be backed by a viable international financing framework.

Country-level growth led by public- and private-sector driven economic advancements improves overall national food security and nutrition outcomes. Unfortunately, the benefits from country macro-level growth are not always equitably distributed or inclusive of those suffering from chronic food insecurity. For too many, this inequity of opportunity too often results in missed or uneven benefits.

To ensure more equitable opportunity derives from economic growth, governments must introduce specific outreach measures offering national social protection policies and systems. Eradicating hunger by 2030 requires a doubling of current efforts at the very minimum, because business as usual will not achieve zero hunger for all. Increased investments in nationally owned social protection systems are urgently needed to reach those furthest behind. Now is the time to pursue the elimination of hunger to the very end. If we act together, in partnership, we can build a prosperous and peaceful world for all the people and for the planet.

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