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The Role of Social Transfers in Improving Nutrition

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29 March 2012

Social transfers and nutrition have received special attention in recent years as important components in the debate about development. New EU reference documents provide guidance on how social transfers can play an important role in improving nutrition outcomes. The authors affirm that there are many opportunities to do this. 

The impact of poor nutrition on development has been in the spotlight in recent years. While the EC has been funding nutrition initiatives for many years, it was through monitoring the impact of early programmes that it was first noted that providing enough food or placing food on the market does not necessarily guarantee appropriate food intake and food absorption by children.  The situation gained urgency with scientific evidence released in 2008  that highlighted the consequences of undernutrition - and mainly chronic undernutrition -on children. 

“Undernutrition is still the most important cause of child deaths in the world, with about 3.5 million children dying every year of under nutrition, but the evidence also shows that it is not only a humanitarian disaster, it is a development challenge,“ explained Jean-Pierre Halkin, of EuropeAid’s Rural Development, Food Security and Nutrition unit, on the sidelines of a recent gathering in Brussels to launch reference documents on both social transfers and addressing undernutrition in external assistance.  “A child that has been undernourished is likely to not develop mentally and physically as a child who has been properly nourished, becoming in itself a long-term threat to economic and social development,” he continued.

The idea of using social transfers to combat malnutrition is not new.  Social transfers are non-contributory, publicly funded, direct, regular and predictable resource transfers (in cash or in kind) to poor or vulnerable individuals or households, aimed at reducing their deficits in food consumption, protecting them from shocks (including economic and climatic), and, in some cases, strengthening their productive capacity.

“We started by doing vast quantities of social transfers - initially emergency food aid. [But] we realized that food aid was not only very expensive but also perhaps the not the most efficient way to provide assistance to vulnerable populations, so we moved to other types of assistance that were linked to vulnerability - for example, food for work or cash for work and, after a while, cash transfers,” said Mr Halkin.  

The theoretical case for using social transfers in the fight against undernutrition is straightforward. Social transfers can address the immediate causes of undernutrition, which are inadequate dietary intake and disease. They can enable recipients to increase their food consumption both in quantity and quality, either directly in the case of food transfers, or thanks to an increased purchasing power in the case of cash-based transfers. Regular social transfers help recipients to smooth consumption and improve their ability to afford healthcare (without having to sell assets or take on debts).

Social transfers may also contribute to tackling underlying causes of undernutrition, especially household food insecurity, and income poverty. Over time, they can help households to build human capital (by investing in their children’s nutrition, health and education), save up to buy productive assets, and obtain to credit on better terms. Depending on context, they may also address some of the basic causes of undernutrition by transforming relationships within society, and between citizens and the state.

Today, social transfers are identified as one of the most appropriate tools to increase resilience of the most vulnerable populations, but they take many diverse forms. “We still need to have a global vision and choice about what is the most appropriate way to assist a vulnerable population,“ said Mr Halkin.

“The reference documents are to provide guidance to EU staff, particularly in Delegations, but also to partner countries on which issues they need to consider when they are designing social transfer programmes to address malnutrition,“ said Nicholas Freeland , the Team Leader of the Advisory Service in Social Transfers (ASiST) who, with Cécile Cherrier, contributed to one of the reference documents. 

The reference documents, “Addressing undernutrition in external assistance” and “Social transfers in the fight against hunger - A resource for development practitioners” provide examples of good and not so good practice, with links to toolkits and methods that are available in and outside of the Commission. “The overall aim is to provide a resource to design more effective programmes,“ said Mr Freeland. 

The primary requirement, he continued, is an understanding of the nutrition situation in a country.  “That means designing programmes with a focus on, for example, pregnant women and children under the age of two, or making sure that women don’t have to work on public works programmes in order to earn an income.” 

“The other challenge is finding a balance really between the economic cost of participating in a programme and the nutritional costs.  An example is a public works programme where you need to be sure that the benefits that the participant derives from participating in the programme, where they have to work hard for 8 hours a day, outweigh the costs in terms of nutrition, opportunity cost, lost child care and possibly even lost education.” 

There have been a number of innovative, successful interventions, notably in the case studies of the Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction and Chars Livelihoods Programme in Bangladesh, and the Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia, or the integrated strategy in Brazil, that could now be scaled up to national level; but Mr Freeland also cites the challenges of possible limited capacity and affordability.

For him, an overriding lesson that has emerged over the last few years in designing social transfer programs is the importance of designing them within a framework of a nationally owned social protection strategy. “What has happened in the past has tended to be that donors have come in and delivered a social transfer over a certain period of time often using non-government channels, not providing any type of long term sustainability. What we see increasingly is the need for any intervention by donors to be a component of national social protection strategies.”

Mr Freeland proposes that donors should help the governments define those types of strategies and that all programmes should contribute to the national strategy, including permanent social transfer schemes targeted at various vulnerable groups of the population (such as pregnant women, young children, the poorest, etc) complemented by additional social transfer programmes during downturns. 

Contributors to this collaborative piece:  Nicholas Freeland , Jean-Pierre Halkin and Cécile Cherrier. The views, opinions and the content herein do not represent the official view of the European Commission. Multimedia and collaboration facilitated by EuropeAid's team

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.


From " What we see increasingly is the need for any intervention by donors to be a component of national social protection strategies.” and "help the governments define those types of strategies and that all programmes should contribute to the national strategy, including permanent social transfer schemes targeted at various vulnerable groups of the population" are quite rightful as statements but do undermine the fundamental dimensions of poverty in the south. First, it may sound surprising that aligning to national safety net strategies is only now taken into consideration when one talks of national accountability and shared stakeholders' participation. Worth of its present consideration. On another key element of sustainability is giving the economic choices to local stakeholders to really take into consideration their future through better access to financial services and mostly financial inclusion (capacitate them to manage their meager resources to avoid liquidate their assets in times of hardships such as access to mutual health services). It is good thta now a fundamentally non dependency approach is being taken when at macro level through program based approaches and SWAT we often talked about accountability but could not downscale to a lower meso - micro level through sustainable programs...

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