Thursday, 11 October 2012

PSNP: Social protection triumph or fly in the ointment?

by Clare Gorman

The Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) in Ethiopia has long been widely regarded as one of the most effective social protection programmes of its kind. Set up in 2004 by the Government of Ethiopia with the help of the international donor community, the programme’s objective is to reduce chronic food security amongst the poorest. It now targets approximately eight million people and has become the largest social protection programme in Sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa.

But the PSNP hasn’t been without its critics. On a political level, government officials last year had to deny claims that members of the opposition were being excluded from the programme.  At the field level, along with donors and government, the PSNP’s struggle to act more efficiently to the 2008 food crisis also exposed some of the limitations in the programmes capacity.

So is the PSNP one of social protection’s biggest triumphs or a fly in its ointment? Has it failed to adapt or can it still deliver effectively in times of crises? New IDS research reveals that the answers lie somewhere in the middle.

Group of women participating in Productive

 Safety Net Programme, Ethiopia 

 Maathan Ratinam Parsons New School for Design

Recurrent food crises and global economic shocks have posed a serious threat to the success of social protection programmes. At the same time more localised shocks, such as floods, droughts and hurricanes, are part of the wider pool of climate-change related events and natural disasters that are also increasingly impacting the lives and wellbeing of poor households.

In an IDS Working Paper published last month, researchers found that despite the PSNP successfully contributing to protecting households against some shocks, the positive effects of the programme are not robust enough to shield recipient households completely against the impacts of severe shocks. In particular, drought appears to be the shock for which both food security and wellbeing of PSNP households are significantly affected.

These findings have critical implications. They confirm that it takes time for households to become sufficiently resilient. During this period, it is essential to continue to protect progress, especially when severe climate or economic shocks threaten to reverse gains. So it would seem that the PSNP has more work to do.

As the World Bank announces it has sanctioned a $1.156 billion interest free loan to Ethiopia to help it deal with these ongoing shocks and the public scrutiny of aid continues (a frightening story for another time ), these findings also highlight why humanitarian relief may still be necessary in some countries. Different social protection instruments achieve different objectives, and these should not be conflated or confused. While the PSNP aims to smooth consumption and build household assets in order to reduce chronic poverty, humanitarian relief provides short-term protection to people who are vulnerable to transitory shocks. Poor and vulnerable Ethiopians do not need one or other of these – they still need both.


The research is part of the wider awareness raising and advocacy effort implemented by the Adaptive Social Protection (ASP) programme to encourage greater integration and knowledge sharing among the Social Protection, Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction communities of practice which would allow for policies that help poor people escape poverty. The ASP Programme funded by the UK-DFID and implemented at IDS aimed at demonstrating that by working better together, these communities have the potential to create tools and spaces that strengthen household resilience and make better contributions to sustainable development.