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Understanding implementation barriers to accessing social protection

Expanding access to social protection, including income transfers, is key to reaching the Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty in all its forms everywhere. While there has been progress in recent decades, more than 4 billion people are still unable to access any social protection, leaving them without income support in times of need (ILO 2021). This depressing fact stems to a large extent from too low public investment in social protection programmes in most low- and middle income countries. 

In addition, even where social protection programmes are formally in place, access is often compromised by implementation failures which means that many people are not able to access the benefits to which they are entitled.

A rights-based approach offers one potential pathway to improving access to social protection. Creating judicable rights to social protection can improve access by enabling rights holders to use the legal system to access programmes. For example, in the Brazilian disability benefit Beneficio de Prestacao Continuada, in 2014, 25 percent of beneficiaries obtained access to the programme through the judiciary (Costa et al., 2016). South Africa is another country, where the courts have played a central role in upholding the right to social protection (Aslam, 2018).

However, a rights-based approach does not in itself guarantee access. India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREGA) provides an example of some of the challenges of such an approach in a context of high levels of inequality and social exclusion. The programme provides a judicable right of 100 days of work per year for India’s rural population. While NREGA has been successful in providing much needed support to millions of people every year, the vast majority of people receive far less work than they desire, and the programme is performing the worst in the states where it is needed the most. Efforts to improve accountability through social audits have largely failed (Schjødt, 2018a). 

The Indian example shows how a rights-based approach is insufficient to overcome barriers to access in the face of fundamental barriers to social justice. As Sony Pellissery argued in the JUST SOCIETY webinar on the “Politics of equal access to justice and welfare rights”, achieving social justice in India requires a “Hindu reformation” to address the fundamental drivers of social exclusion. Pellissery argued that, unfortunately, the current “constitution-based” efforts to reform Indian society have largely failed. 

Others have reached the same conclusion, including, for example, Aiyar and Walton (2014) in their account of rights, accountability and citizenship in India’s emerging welfare state. They point to the shortcomings of rights-based reforms in the absence of more fundamental institutional and political reforms. The Indian case points to a number of key topics to explore in order to better understand implementation barriers to accessing social protection (Schjødt, 2018a):

  • Local politics and power relations: While much work has focused on the role of national politics, including the inspiring work by the effective states programme on political settlements, local politics and power relations (including local political settlements) can play a key role in determining who can access social protection. Again, the case of NREGA in India is instructive, as shown for example in Indrajit Roys excellent analysis of the role of class politics in determining access to work (Roy, 2015).

    Public administration: Issues of state capacity are of obvious importance for access to social protection, with responsibilities for administering cash transfer programmes often added to the existing workloads of already overworked local officials. Accountability structures within bureaucracies can also have important implications for access. In NREGA, it has for example been a challenge that departments responsible for carrying out social audits are not able to hold the responsible frontline officials accountable (Aiyar and Mehta, 2013). Here, there is more room for contributions by in-depth ethnographic research of implementation challenges, such as Tara Cookson’s work in Peru (Cookson, 2018). Or, to use an example from a high-income context, the work of Vincent Dubois’ in France (Dubois, 2017). A recent article in the journal Governance outlining an agenda for public administration research in developing countries highlighted the need for theory-building and qualitative research in this area, and this is also the case when it comes to the administration of social protection programmes (Bertelli et al. 2020). 

    Civil society: Civil society organisations often play a key role in disseminating information and mobilising people to access social protection. On the other hand, there are also limitations to what can be expected of civil society and sometimes organisations will be captured by local elites and subject to the same patterns of social exclusion as the rest of society. In the case of NREGA, civil society was intended to play a key role in mobilising workers to participate in social audits. However, this has rarely happened in practice, and the most successful state when it comes to the implementation of social audits, Andhra Pradesh, the process has been facilitated by the state (Schjødt 2018a). While the state government deliberately excluded larger civil society organisations dominated by local elites, there are indications that the vast network of Self-Help Groups and community-based organisations in the state have played an important role in implementation of NREGA (Aiyar and Mehta, 2013).    

    Programme design: Finally, there is a need for a better understanding of how aspects of social protection programme design such as targeting criteria, conditionalities and the use of quotas can create barriers to access (Schjødt, 2018b). In the case of NREGA, the complexity of the programme is one reason for the shortcomings in the implementation of the programme (Chopra, 2015). The analysis by Roy referenced above shows how the design of the programme means that it interferes in local labour markets in ways which creates resistance from local landowners (Roy, 2015). More generally, some tasks – e.g. the provision of a universal old age pension – are more conducive to the strengthening of accountability through judicable rights than the complex and discretionary task of delivering a programme like NREGA (Aiyar and Walton, 2014).

While a rights-based approach can certainly improve access to social protection to some extent, on its own it is unlikely to be a viable pathway to social justice in societies with high levels of inequality and social exclusion. This requires reforms that tackle all the various implementation barriers that may exist in a given context, including issues of local politics and power relations, public administration, the role of civil society and the way programme design interacts with all of these.

Rasmus Schjødt

13 January 2022

Rasmus Schjødt is a PhD student at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University. Prior to starting his PhD he worked as a social policy consultant, with a focus on access to social protection in low- and middle income countries. 


Aiyar, Y. and Mehta, S.K (2013). Spectators or Participants? Examining the Effects of Social Audits on Citizen-State Relations and the Local Politics of Corruption in Andhra Pradesh. Accountability Initiative Working Paper.

Aiyar, Y. & Walton, M. (2014). Rights, Accountability and Citizenship: Examining India’s Emerging Welfare State. Engaging Accountability: Working Paper Series, Accountability Initiative.  

Aslam, G. (2018). Social Accountability in the Delivery of Social Protection: South Africa Case Study. Development Pathways.

Bertelli, M. Anthony, Mai Hassan, Dan Honig, Daniel Rogger, Martin J. Williams (2020). An agenda for the study of public administration in developing countries. Governance Volume 33, Issue 4, October 2020, pp. 735-748.

Chopra (2015). Political commitment in India’s social policy implementation: Shaping the performance of MGNREGA. ESID Working Paper No. 50, May 2015.

Cookson, T.P. (2018). Unjust Conditions: Women’s Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer Programs. University of California Press.

Costa, Nilson do Rosário, Miguel Abud Marcelino, Cristina Maria Rabelais Duarte, Deborah Uhr (2016). Social protection and people with disabilities in Brazil. Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, 21(10):3037-3047, 2016. DOI: 10.1590/1413-812320152110.18292016

Dubois, V. (2017). The Bureaucrat and the Poor: Encounters in French Welfare Offices. Routledge. 

ILO (2021). World Social Protection Report 2020-22: Social protection at the crossroads – in pursuit of a better future. International Labour Organisation.

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Schjødt, R. (2018a). Social Accountability in the Delivery of Social Protection: India Case Study. Development Pathways.

Schjødt, R. (2018b). The Need for Transparency: Designing Rights-Based and Accountable Social Protection Systems. Commentary, Social Protection and Human Rights.


Last Updated 20.01.2022