By the admission of the three speakers taking part in the debate on social protection – the closing session on third day of the 3rd International Conference on Global Food Security – the ‘debate’ wasn’t nearly as adversarial as they had perhaps made it out to be.
But that, explained Professor Stephen Devereux, was because they were pretty much agreed on the pros and shortcomings of South Africa’s social protection programme, specifically the Child Support Grant (CSG). Part of the aim of the grant – much like the social protection programmes of many countries – is to ease food insecurity, explained Devereux, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, and holder of the SARChI Chair in Social Protection for Food Security at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
As a whole, social protection programmes have managed to achieve just that. But there is a caveat, as international studies have linked cash transfers to the greater consumption of processes and sugary foods, resulting in increased body mass index obesity, pointed out Devereux. “It doesn’t necessarily mean giving people more cash will increase the quality of their diet,” he said.
In South Africa, as elsewhere, there also exists a worrying paradox, however. Studies from across the world confirm that while social protection programmes usually have a positive impact on food security in poor households, they find no impact on nutrition outcomes, such as the number of children who are too short for their age (stunting) or too thin for their age (underweight). It is estimated that some 27% of South Africa’s children still suffer from stunting.
In the context of the CSG, that paradox can possibly be credited to several factors, noted Dr Wanga Zembe, specialist scientist at the South African Medical Research Council. Such that it those who don’t meet the means-tested threshold – regardless of their need – cannot access the grant; the small value of the grant (R380 per month) covers only 64% of the cost of even a minimal food basket for a child; it is not well integrated with other services, such as access to sanitation, for instance; and the amount is diluted as it is used to meet other household needs.
WATCH: Dr Zember explains some of the limitations of the CSG to ensure adequate child nutrition
Increasingly it is being recognised that a more comprehensive social protection model is needed to improve children’s nutrition status, observed Zembe.
“Grants are not enough on their own to support the needs of children,” she said. “Cash alone is not enough to impact child nutrition; in particular, there needs to be more focus on nutrition education, on early childhood development services, on the school nutrition programme, and then on changing the structural drivers of poverty.”
In turn, Professor Julian May, director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security at UWC, then raised the point that, despite the CSG’s failings, stunting numbers in South Africa may well have been much worse had it not been for the grant. In making his case, he pointed to successes in improving children’s nutrition status in countries like Brazil, Peru (which cut stunting rates by half in just a decade), Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
But, ultimately, May concurred with Zembe: these countries were successful because they integrated cash transfers with other policies, programmes and initiatives, while also increasing food production and achieving pro-poor economic growth. A key driver, he highlighted, was the education status of mothers; the more schooling they receive, the better the nutrition outcomes of their children.
It should also be recognised that poverty reduction, which often lies outside of the food system, is one of the strongest drivers of improvements in nutrition, May pointed out.
“Social protection is an important contributor to the reduction of child stunting,” he said. “But to work, it needs to be linked to other nutrition-sensitive interventions.”