The Need for Transparency: Designing Rights-Based and Accountable Social Protection Systems

Date: 12 April 2018
Author: Rasmus Jensen Schjødt

A human rights-based approach to social protection requires transparency, accountability and accessibility to be an integral part of the design of policies and programmes. However, policy makers often do not consider whether social protection programmes enable or hinder human rights; focusing instead on issues such as cost effectiveness, distributional impacts and work incentives. In a recent research project carried out by Development Pathways, we found that social accountability should not be considered as an ad-hoc or stand-alone initiative, but rather as part and parcel of the provision of social protection.


Anchoring the right to social protection in national legislation

When social protection programmes are anchored in national legislation, rights holders can use the legal system to access programmes if they are unrightfully excluded. For example, in the Brazilian Beneficio de Prestacao Continuada (BPC),1 which has a legal basis in the Brazilian constitution, in 2014, almost 25 percent of people with disabilities who gained access to the programme did so through the judiciary. Similarly, South Africa’s social protection programmes also have a strong legal basis in the constitution and the courts have also played a central role in upholding the right to social protection (Aslam, forthcoming).

However, having programmes anchored in national legislation is not in itself sufficient to enable accountability in practice. For example, the Indian national public works programme MGNREGA provides a judicable right to 100 days of work per year for India’s rural population. Despite this, the vast majority of the population are receiving far less work than they desire, partly because of the very complex design of the programme and the way it interacts with local power relations (Schjødt, forthcoming).

For social protection programmes to enable officials’ accountability and empowerment of citizens, programme design need to take into consideration how targeting criteria, benefit levels calculations, rationing of access, use of conditions and other design choices affect power relations between citizens and officials.


The need for transparency

First of all, citizens must be able to understand the eligibility criteria and the type and amount of benefits to which they are entitled. This principle is upheld in the case of universal old age pensions, where rights holders receive a specified amount upon reaching the age of eligibility. Means-tested social security programmes in high-income countries also usually demonstrate transparent and clear eligibility criteria anchored in legislation. In these types of programme, residents have a right to benefits as long as their income is below the given threshold (and they fulfil any additional eligibility criteria).

However, many poverty-targeted social security programmes in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are not transparent. Because income data is not readily available, many of these programmes resort to using non-transparent targeting mechanisms such as proxy means tests where beneficiaries are selected according to a mathematical formula, based on household data that are not publicly accessible. Consequently, beneficiaries are unaware of eligibility criteria and benefits cannot be considered entitlements.

Lack of transparency also has practical consequences. We found in our research on public works programmes in India and Ethiopia that the complexity of these types of programme make it more difficult to fight corruption and for citizens to hold officials accountable (Schjødt forthcoming; Ayliffe 2018). The lack of transparency regarding eligibility criteria makes it far easier for officials to exclude people from programmes and siphon off funds public funds, as people are unaware of their rights.


Equality and non-discrimination

Another common feature of social protection programmes in LMICs is the use of quotas. This practice violates the fundamental principle of non-discrimination and equality before the law, as families and individuals in similar circumstances are not ensured equal access to programmes. When this happens, benefits are unlikely to be considered entitlements by citizens. Instead, people consider the benefits a “gift” for which they should be grateful rather than a basic right, undermining efforts to improve social accountability.

Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme is an example of a social protection programme that bases eligibility on quotas which ration benefits on the basis of the available budget, without consideration of actual needs. Beneficiaries are expected to “graduate” from the programme once they achieve food sufficiency without external support. In practice, however, the quotas exclude people in need of support, and citizens are often forced to exit the programme even though they do not fulfil the official criteria. Who to exclude from the programme is largely up to the discretion of local officials, some of whom have admitted to graduating citizens who are too critical of local governments. Naturally, this means that many people refrain from raising complaints out of fear of being removed from the programme. In effect, the programme becomes a tool of repression rather than one of empowerment, and accountability is again undermined.


Use of conditions and sanctions

While our research points to the importance of ensuring face-to-face interaction between officials and citizens, interfaces between the State and citizens are not automatically empowering. For example, if face time is primarily spent with officials who are monitoring citizens’ compliance with behavioural conditions as a part of conditional cash transfer programmes, this can serve to reinforce the power imbalance and impede accountability. The use of conditions provides officials with a tool for sanctioning citizens when social accountability requires the contrary – that citizens are given tools for sanctioning officials (because accountability requires both access to information and the ability of rights holders to sanction duty bearers).

Research by Fox (2007), Jones et al. (2008) and Cookson (2016) found that the use of conditionalities tends to reinforce existing unequal power relations between citizens and the State, rather than empowering citizens. Conditional cash transfer programmes assign frontline service providers the task of verifying that beneficiaries meet the required conditions, giving the service providers disproportionate power over rights holders. Rights holders could thus have a legitimate fear that complaining about teacher or health worker absenteeism would lead to cash transfers being stopped, again undermining accountability.


Social protection programmes must be designed to empower citizens

To promote accountability and human rights, social protection programmes must be designed in such a way that eligibility criteria and other programme rules are easily comprehensible and accessible to intended beneficiaries and other citizens.

This is the case for rights-based social protection programmes, such as universal old age pensions and child benefits, which provide a right to transfers based on transparent criteria, such as people’s age and residency. It is also the case for means-tested benefits with transparent eligibility criteria in countries where information on incomes is available. However, it is not the case for programmes which try to overcome lack of information by using opaque poverty-targeting approaches such as proxy means tests and quotas.

Unfortunately, rather than being empowering, too many social protection programmes risk exacerbating the already unequal power relations between States and citizens by employing non-transparent poverty targeting mechanisms and enforcing conditions, denying people the right to social protection.




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

Ayliffe, Tamsin; Schjødt, Rasmus and Aslam, Ghazia (2018). Social Accountability in the Delivery of Social Protection: Technical Guidance Note. Development Pathways.

Ayliffe, Tamsin; Aslam, Ghazia and Schjødt, Rasmus (2018). Social Accountability in the Delivery of Social Protection: Final Research Report. Development Pathways.

Ayliffe, Tamsin (2018). Social Accountability in the Delivery of Social Protection: Ethiopia Case Study. Development Pathways.

Cookson, T. P. (2016). Working for Inclusion? Conditional Cash Transfers, Rural Women, and the Reproduction of Inequality. Antipode, 48: 1187–1205.

Fox, J. (2007). Accessing Accountability: Individual Versus Collective Voices. Chapter 9 in Accountability Politics: Power and Voice in Rural Mexico. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Jones, N., Villar E. and Vargas, R. (2008). Cash Transfers to Tackle Childhood Poverty and Vulnerability: An Analysis of Peru’s Juntos Programme. Environment and Urbanization 20.1: 255-73.

Schjødt, Rasmus (2018). Social Accountability in the Delivery of Social Protection: Nepal Case Study. Development Pathways.

Schjødt, Rasmus (forthcoming). Social Accountability in the Delivery of Social Protection: India Case Study. Development Pathways.



Rasmus Jensen Schjødt is an independent Social Policy Consultant, based in Denmark. He has a background in political science and has worked in international development for ten years in various roles. In recent years he has been involved in several research projects on social protection in LMICs.

This expert commentary is based on recent research on social accountability in social protection carried out for Development Pathways.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Beneficio de Prestacao Continuada is the main Brazilian social protection programme that supports older people and people with disabilities living in extreme poverty.

Leave a Comment

Social Protection and Human Rights