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New Forms of Social Assistance and the Evolution of Social Protection in Latin America*


This article discusses the evolution of social protection in Latin America and proposes a conceptualisation and contextualisation of new forms of social assistance. It begins by outlining the main features of social protection prior to the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s and the changes enforced by crises and structural adjustment. It then focuses on the new forms of social assistance emerging in the region, especially conditional and unconditional income transfers and integrated anti-poverty programmes. The article draws out their common features, identifies possible underlying conceptual frameworks, and places their introduction and evolution within the broader context of the new dynamics of poverty and vulnerability in the region.

Síntese: Este artigo discute a evolução da seguridade social na America Latina e propõe uma conceitualização e contextualização das novas formas de assistência social. Começa delineando as principais características da seguridade social anteriores à “década perdida” dos anos 1980 e as mudanças impostas por crises e ajustes estruturais. Em seguida se concentra nas novas formas de assistência social que vêm surgindo na região, particularmente nas transferências de renda condicionais e incondicionais e nos programas de erradicação da pobreza. O artigo aponta traços comuns, identifica possíveis estruturas conceituais subjacentes e situa a introdução e evolução dos programas no âmbito mais amplo das novas dinâmicas da pobreza e da vulnerabilidade social na região.

Palavras-chave: programas de erradicação da pobreza, assistência social, seguridade social.

Resumen: Este artículo discute la evolución de la protección social en América Latina y propone una conceptualización y contextualización de nuevas formas de asistencia social. Comienza esbozando las principales características de la protección social antes de la “década perdida” de los años 80 y los cambios impuestos por las crisis y los ajustes estructurales. Luego se centra en las nuevas formas de asistencia social emergentes en la región, especialmente en la transferencia condicional e incondicional de ingresos y los programas integrados anti-pobreza. El artículo delinea sus características comunes, identifica posibles marcos conceptuales básicos y sitúa su introducción y evolución al interior de un contexto más amplio de las nuevas dinámicas de pobreza y vulnerabilidad en la región.

Palabras clave: programas anti-pobreza, asistencia social, protección social

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1 Molyneux is an exception. See Maxine Molyneux, ‘Maternalism and the new poverty agenda in Latin America: The Progresa/Oportunidades programme in Mexico’, in Shahra Razavi and Shireen Hassim (eds.), Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context (London, 2006), pp. 1–42.

2 Tim Conway, Arjan de Haan and Andy Norton (eds.), Social Protection: New Directions of Donor Agencies (London, 2000), p. 5.

3 Social protection overlaps with social policy, but the latter is broader in scope. Social policy also covers access to basic services such as health and education as well as social and community services.

4 Armando Barrientos, ‘Latin America: towards a liberal-informal welfare regime’, in Ian Gough, et al. (eds.), Insecurity and welfare regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 121–68.

5 Gustavo Márquez and Carmen Pagés, ‘Ties that bind: Employment Protection and Labour Market Outcomes in Latin America’ (Washington DC: IADB, 1998), Jurgen Weller, ‘Los retos de la institucionalidad laboral en el marco de la transformación de la modalidad de desarrollo en América Latina’ (Santiago: CEPAL, 1998).

6 Molyneux, ‘Maternalism and the new poverty agenda in Latin America: The Progresa/Oportunidades programme in Mexico’.

7 Sebastian Edwards, Crisis and Reform in Latin America, from despair to hope (New York, 1995).

8 Altimir, Oscar, ‘Desigualdad, Empleo y Pobreza en America Latina: Efectos del ajuste y del cambio en el estilo de desarrollo’, Desarrollo Económico vol. 37, no. 145 (1997), pp. 329.

9 ‘Political settlement’ here refers to the broad and enduring political coalitions and institutions that sustained and supported the development model.

10 Mesa-Lago, Carmelo, ‘Myth and Reality of Pension Reform: The Latin American Evidence’, World Development vol. 30, no. 8 (2002), pp. 1309–21.

11 Armando Barrientos and Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, ‘Health Insurance Reforms in Latin America: Cream Skimming, Equity and Cost Containment’, in Louise Haagh and Camilla T. Helgo (eds.), Social Policy Reform and Market Governance in Latin America (London, 2002), pp. 183–99.

12 Márquez and Pagés, ‘Ties that bind: Employment Protection and Labour Market Outcomes in Latin America’.

13 Categorical transfers identify beneficiaries on the basis of characteristics associated with poverty or vulnerability, such as old age or particular disabilities.

14 See, for example, Samuel Morley and David Coady, From social assistance to social development: Targeted education subsidies in developing countries (Washington DC, 2003), Rawlings, Laura B. and Rubio, Laura, ‘Evaluating the impact of conditional cash transfer programs’, World Bank Research Observer vol. 20, no. 1 (2005), pp. 2955.

15 There is, of course, considerable diversity in the design of social assistance programmes in Latin American countries. Many countries have programmes providing transfers in kind, subsidies covering charges from utilities, school meals, child development and protection services, and so forth. There are also many programmes providing emergency assistance, such as public works, shelter or sanitation services, for example. In some countries in the region these programmes are a significant component of social assistance expenditure. Our focus here is on programmes built around the provision of regular and reliable transfers to households in poverty.

16 Some commentators argue that Southern Mediterranean countries show a well defined welfare regime, with strong similarities to the ‘conservative’ welfare regime. See Ferrera, M., ‘The “Southern Model” of Welfare’, Journal of European Social Policy vol. 6 (1996), pp. 1737. Gosta Esping-Andersen, Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies (Oxford, 1999).

17 Chikako Usui, ‘Welfare state development in a world system context: event history analysis of first social insurance legislation among 60 countries, 1880–1960’, in Thomas Janoski and Alexander M. Hicks (eds.), The Comparative Political Economy of the Welfare State (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 254–77.

18 Carmelo Mesa-Lago, ‘Social Security in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Comparative Assessment’, in E. Ahmad, et al. (eds.), Social Security in Developing Countries (Oxford, 1991), pp. 357–94.

19 Armando Barrientos, ‘Women, informal employment and social protection in Latin America’, in Claudia Piras (ed.), Women at Work. Challenges for Latin America (Washington DC, 2004), pp. 255–92; Molyneux, Maxine, ‘Mothers at the Service of the New Poverty Agenda: Progresa/Oportunidades, Mexico's Conditional Transfer Programme’, Social Policy and Administration vol. 40, no. 4 (2006), pp. 245–49.

20 Barrientos, ‘Latin America: towards a liberal-informal welfare regime’; Carmelo Mesa-Lago, ‘Las reformas de las pensiones en América Latina y su impacto en los principios de la seguridad social’ (Santiago: CEPAL, 2004); Carmelo Mesa-Lago, ‘Las reformas de salud en América Latina y el Caribe: su impacto sobre los principios de la seguridad social’ (Santiago: CEPAL, 2005).

21 David de Ferranti et al., ‘Securing our Future in a Global Economy’, (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2000), Ariel Fiszbein, ‘Beyond truncated welfare states: Quo Vadis Latin America?’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2005).

22 In Brazil for example, one of the few countries that so far has avoided fundamental reforms to the pension component of their social insurance schemes, the subsidy from tax revenues to the deficit of social insurance pensions amounts to four to five per cent of GDP annually.

23 Kathy Lindert, Emmanuel Skoufias and John Shapiro, ‘Redistributing income to the poor and the rich. Public transfers in LAC’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2005).

24 ILO, ‘Panorama Laboral 2003’ (Lima: International Labour Organisation, 2003); ILO, ‘Panorama Laboral 2007’ (Lima: International Labour Organisation, 2007). The latter notes that changes to household surveys after 2003 could affect comparability with earlier data.

25 Bourguignon, for example, raises the possibility of decoupling employment and protection. See Francois Bourguignon, ‘Development strategies for more and better jobs’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2005).

26 It is likely that pension reforms added to the decline in coverage of social insurance funds. See R. Rofman, ‘Social Security Coverage in Latin America’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2005); Indermit S. Gill, Truman Packard and Juan Yermo, Keeping the Promise of Social Security in Latin America (Washington DC, 2004). The move to individual saving as the main instrument to provide protection against key contingencies has not proved to be sufficiently attractive to those in low paid and irregular employment, see Barrientos, Armando, ‘Pension Reform and Pension Coverage in Chile: Lessons for Other Countries’, Bulletin of Latin American Research vol. 15, no. 3 (1996), pp. 309–22.

27 Rossana Mostajo, ‘Gasto Social y Distribución del Ingreso: caracterización e impacto redistributivo en países seleccionados de América Latina y el Caribe’ (Santiago: CEPAL, 2000); James M. Snyder and Irene Yackovlev, ‘Political and economic determinants of changes in government spending in social protection programmes’ (Cambridge MA: MIT, 2000).

28 Molyneux, ‘Maternalism and the new poverty agenda in Latin America: The Progresa/Oportunidades programme in Mexico’.

29 Carol Graham, ‘Public attitudes matter: A conceptual framework for accounting for political economy in safety nets and social assistance policies’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2002).

30 More comprehensive and detailed description of social assistance programmes can be found in Marcia Pardo, ‘Reseña de programas sociales para la superación de la pobreza en América Latina’ (Santiago: CEPAL, 2003); Armando Barrientos and Rebecca Holmes, ‘Social Assistance in Developing Countries’ (Manchester: Chronic Poverty Research Centre, 2007); Rawlings and Rubio, ‘Evaluating the impact of conditional cash transfer programs’.

31 Conditional income transfers can also be found in Nicaragua (Red de Protección Social), Dominican Republic (Programa Solidaridad), Paraguay (Red de Protección y Promoción Social), Peru (Programa Juntos) and Argentina (Programa Familias por la Inclusión Social). Non-contributory pensions are in place in other Latin American countries, including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica, see Fabio Bertranou, Carmen Solorio and Wouter van Ginneken, Pensiones no-contributivas y asistenciales. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica y Uruguay (Santiago, 2002). There is considerable variation in the share of GDP allocated to social assistance programmes in Latin America, roughly within a range of 0.2 to 1.5 per cent of GDP. The social assistance programmes listed in the table and in this footnote absorb a fraction of 1 percent of GDP, for example Oportunidades absorbs around 0.4 per cent of Mexican GDP. In terms of reach, the conditional income transfer programmes listed above and in Table 1 combined reach around 24 million households or around 100 million beneficiaries, assuming an average household size of four members.

32 Indermit S. Gill and Nadeem Ilahi, ‘Economic insecurity, economic behaviour and social policy’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2002), Holzmann, Robert and Jorgensen, Steen, ‘Social Protection as Social Risk Management: Conceptual Underpinnings for the Social Protection Strategy Paper’, Journal of International Development vol. 11 (1999), pp. 1005–27.

33 Robert Holzmann, L. Sherbourne-Benz and E. Tesliuc, ‘Social risk management. The World Bank's approach to social protection in a globalizing world’ (Washington DC: Human Development Network, The World Bank, 2003).

34 Elisabeth Sadoulet et al., ‘Can conditional transfer programs improve social risk management? Lessons for education and child labour outcomes’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2004).

35 See Erik Thorbecke, ‘Multi-dimensional poverty: Conceptual and measurement issues’ (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2005).

36 See Tarsicio Castañeda and Enrique Aldez-Carroll, ‘The intergenerational transmission of poverty: some causes and policy implications’ (Washington DC: Inter-American Development Bank, 1999).

37 Amartya Sen, Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam, 1985); Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford, 1999).

38 MIDEPLAN, ‘Conceptos Fundamentales. Sistema de Protección Social Chile Solidario’ (Santiago: MIDEPLAN, 2004).

39 This is a fundamental break with older forms of social assistance that were poorly targeted and highly marginal in coverage. See Barrientos, Armando, ‘The missing piece of pension reform in Latin America: Poverty reduction’, Social Policy and Administration vol. 40, no. 4 (2006), pp. 369–84, David Coady, Margaret Grosh and John Hoddinott, Targeting of Transfers in Developing Countries. Review of Lessons and Experience (Washington DC, 2004), Lindert, Skoufias and Shapiro, ‘Redistributing income to the poor and the rich. Public transfers in LAC’; Carmelo Mesa-Lago, ‘Social Assistance on Pensions and Health Care for the Poor in Latin America and the Caribbean’, in Nora C. Lustig (ed.), pp. 175–216, Shielding the Poor. Social Protection in the Developing World (Washington DC, 2001); Andras Uthoff, ‘Trends in Social Security Reform and the Uninsured’ (Washington DC: Inter-American Development Bank, 1999).

40 Santibañez, Claudio, ‘The informational basis of poverty measurement: using the Capability Approach to improve the CAS’, European Journal of Development Research vol. 17, no. 1 (2005), pp. 89110.

41 Barrientos, ‘The missing piece of pension reform in Latin America: Poverty reduction’.

42 Rawlings and Rubio, ‘Evaluating the impact of conditional cash transfer programs’.

43 Coady, Grosh and Hoddinott, Targeting of Transfers in Developing Countries. Review of Lessons and Experience.

44 All new social assistance programmes in Latin America employ fixed level transfers, sometimes with supplements based on the number and school grade of children, as in Progresa/Oportunidades. Addressing the deficits among the poorest households requires both selection based on ranking and variable level transfers, as in the Chinese Minimum Living Standards Scheme which aims at covering the poverty gap of households.

45 Consejo Nacional de Política Económica y Social, ‘Red de Protección Social contra la Extrema Pobreza’ (Bogotá: Departamento Nacional de Planeación, Goberno de Colombia, 2006).

46 For a comparative study of the impact of different types of conditionality in the context of rural Mexico see Benjamin Davis et al., ‘Conditionality and the impact of program design on household welfare: Comparing two diverse cash transfer programs in rural Mexico’ (Washington DC: Inter-American Development Bank, 2002).

47 For reasons of space we have ignored political economy factors behind conditionalities, and consideration of the costs of compliance imposed on the poor and on programme costs as a factor militating against the effectiveness of conditionalities. See Barrientos, Armando and DeJong, Jocelyn, ‘Reducing child poverty with cash transfers: A sure thing?’, Development Policy Review vol. 24, no. 5 (2006), pp. 537–52.

48 This emerges from the relevant studies: Orazio Attanasio, ‘Baseline Report on the Evaluation of “Familias en Acción”’ (London: Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2003); Orazio Attanasio et al., ‘Child education and work choices in the presence of a conditional cash transfer programme in rural Colombia’ (London: IFS, 2006); Das, Jishnu, Do, Quy-Toan and Ozler, Berk, ‘Reassessing conditional cash transfer programs’, World Bank Research Observer vol. 20, no. 1 (2005), pp. 128; Janvry, Alain De et al. , ‘Can conditional transfer programmes work as safety nets in keeping children at school and from working when exposed to shocks?Journal of Development Economics vol. 79 (2006); John A. Maluccio, ‘Coping with the “Coffee Crisis” in Central America: The Role of the Nicaraguan Red de Protección Social’ (Washington: IFPRI, 2005).

49 Evaluations of Progresa show a large reduction in the poverty gap, but the impact on poverty incidence is small. See Emmanuel Skoufias, ‘Progresa and its impact on the human capital and welfare of households in rural Mexico. A synthesis of the results of an evaluation by IFPRI’ (Washington DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001).

50 Some programmes only started the evaluation process after implementation. For example, the evaluation of Chile Solidario will rely on household survey data to be collected at the end of 2007 for a first round of impact evaluation.

51 Oportunidades extends support for children to post-school education and training, and also supports micro-enterprise activities. Employment is one of the seven dimensions targeted by Chile Solidario, and includes as a minimum threshold to be achieved that at least one adult in the household is in employment. The income transfer under Jefes y Jefas was made conditional on the provision of community service, the attendance to school or training, or job experience with private employers.

52 In practice, reviews are far from being regular or strict.

53 The Chronic Poverty Report considered evidence emerging from a range of countries with longitudinal datasets, and suggested that for countries with average conditions around 40 per cent of the poor can be classified as ‘chronically poor’. See CPRC, ‘The Chronic Poverty Report 2004–05’, (Manchester: Chronic Poverty Research Centre, 2005). See also Baulch, Bob and Hoddinott, John, ‘Economic mobility and poverty dynamics in developing countries’, Journal of Development Studies vol. 36, no. 6 (2000), pp. 340.

54 The issue of the roles or functions of social assistance merits a more detailed discussion than is possible in this article. Traditional social assistance in the region also had multiple functions, including redistribution and insurance, although the emphasis was mainly on life course redistribution (such as, for example, family allowances and pensions). These carry over into new forms of social assistance, although now with a wider scope. The role and functions of new forms of social assistance can be described by the four ‘Ps’: protection, promotion, (em)powerment and propulsion. These also map into redistribution, insurance and agency.

55 Graham, ‘Public attitudes matter: A conceptual framework for accounting for political economy in safety nets and social assistance policies’, p. 16.

56 Only 21 per cent of US respondents agreed with the view that lack of effort by the poor themselves is not an important cause of poverty; while 63 per cent of Latin American respondents agreed with the view that poverty is due to bad circumstances with 36 per cent agreeing with the view that lack of effort by the poor themselves was a major cause of poverty, Ibid.

57 Philip Keefer and Stuti Khemani, ‘The Political Economy of Public Expenditures’ (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2003).

58 See Hall, Anthony, ‘From Fome Zero to Bolsa Familia: Social Policies and Poverty Alleviation under Lula’, Journal of Latin American Studies vol. 38, no. 4 (2006), pp. 689709.

59 Selection of beneficiaries, conditionality, management by semi-autonomous public agencies, and monitoring and evaluation are other design features contributing to building credibility.

60 The World Development Report 2006 describes this path dependence as ‘inequality traps’, see World Bank, ‘World Development Report 2006: Equity and development’ (Washington: The World Bank, 2006). See also Samuel Bowles, Steven N. Durlauf and Karla Hoff (eds.), Poverty Traps (New York, 2006); de Ferranti et al., ‘Securing our Future in a Global Economy’.

61 Both left of centre and right of centre governments have adopted new forms of social assistance, for example Lula's administration led the expansion of Bolsa Escola into Bolsa Familia, while Fox did the same for Progresa/Oportunidades. It is too early to assess whether newly elected governments in Bolivia and Ecuador signal a directional change in social assistance programmes. In Bolivia, the re-nationalisation of utilities will necessarily involve a reform of the financial basis of BONOSOL, currently the privatisation fund, but there is no indication that the programme itself is under threat. In fact, legislation approved in November 2007 aims to replace BONOSOL with an improved benefit named BONO DIGNIDAD. In Ecuador, the new government of Rafael Correa has supported the extension of the Bono de Desarrollo Humano.

62 This point should not be over-emphasised as much of social insurance was effectively tax-financed in the region.

63 Claudio Santibañez, ‘Review of integrated programmes tackling extreme and persistent poverty in Latin America’ (Manchester: Chronic Poverty Research Centre, 2006).

64 There is CAS in Chile, SISBEN in Colombia, Cadastro Unico in Brazil, proxy means tests in Uruguay and Mexico and a proxy means test being developed in Panama. See I. Irarrazabal, ‘Sole information systems on beneficiaries in Latin America’, (Washington: IADB, 2004), Santibañez, ‘Review of integrated programmes tackling extreme and persistent poverty in Latin America’.

65 Increasingly, stakeholders including national governments, donors, multilateral agencies and researchers are discussing whether these programmes fit within rights based approaches. The paper incorporates related concerns in the discussion of conceptual frameworks above.

* The paper benefited from helpful comments and suggestions provided by the JLAS editors and four anonymous reviewers. The errors that remain are ours alone.

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Journal of Latin American Studies
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