The global social protection community gathered in Geneva this week to discuss Universal Child Grants (UCGs) and its potential for reaching Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1 on eradicating child poverty in all its forms. UCGs are cash transfers that are paid for all children under a certain age regardless of their families’ income. Currently, 662 million children in low and middle-income countries live in multidimensional poverty. Reaching all children with cash transfers ensures an inclusive approach to poverty reduction based on principles of human rights and equality.
I was honoured to convene a session on dignity and shame, which was a welcome first opportunity to discuss these issues explicitly at a conference on social protection. We took a tour around the world, hearing about how cash transfers in low-income countries such as Ghana and Zimbabwe can harness dignity, how conditional cash transfers in middle-income countries such as Peru can cause tension and shadow conditions, and how welfare receipt in high-income countries such as the UK is coupled with high levels of stigma and stereotyping (the ‘benefits’ narrative), all feeding into considerations of how UCGs may help to promote dignity or counter shame.
The topic clearly resonated among the conference participants as became evident during the discussion in our and other sessions, coffee breaks and corridor discussions.
What did we learn?
It is clear that UCGs hold great potential for improving people’s lives with dignity. The provision of cash transfers on a regular basis improves feelings of self-respect as its recipients are able to purchase clothing, no longer need to beg and participate to community activities. The universal component of UCGs also avoids singling out a particular group and requiring recipients to engage in behaviours such as sending children to school or attending parenting classes in order to receive the cash. This can be powerful for countering stigma that results in labelling people as poor or stereotypes related to bad behaviour of recipients.
But UCGs are not necessarily a magic bullet.
Dignity requires transfers that are high enough to make a meaningful difference. Application and payment processes need to be clear, easy to navigate, and to be accompanied with a strong mechanism for voicing complaints. Crucially, interactions with programme staff need to be positive, treating beneficiaries as people rather than numbers. For UCGs to harness dignity, they need a human face.
Implementation of social protection programmes including UCGs needs to go hand-in-hand with more meaningful engagement with those who are to receive social protection, both during the design of the programme and when it is implemented. Recipients of social protection are rarely consulted on what they need and how they would like to receive it. This also involves stronger measuring and monitoring of stigma and shame as a result of receiving social protection. We currently have too little information about the extent to which stringent targeting of programmes in many low-income countries or other issues with implementation may lead to stigma.
Finally, stigma in relation to social protection is couched in wider political discourse and public narratives about poor people being responsible for their predicament. Particularly in high-income countries, stereotypes and myths about how cash transfers may be used and abused are widespread. This lays a foundation for stigma and shame that will be difficult to overcome within individual programmes. Countering stigma related to social protection ultimately requires recasting the debate about poverty away from seeing poor people as the problem but rather the systems that allow for poverty to exist in the first place.