Social Policy in Africa: The Root Causes of Social Problems

Anna Wolkenhauer
File:Poverty in Valhalla Park (8516538799).jpg

Anna Wolkenhauer commends a new book, Social Policy in the African Context, edited by ROAPE’s Jimi Adesina, which rescues social policy from the assault of neoliberalism by carving out the necessary space for sovereign and transformative policymaking that can tackle the “root causes” of social problems. With its timely and important intervention into the debates on radical social policy in Africa, this collection, she argues, contributes a significant step forward. – ROAPE

Achieving socio-economic equality and development is an unfinished project on the African continent. While grand visions exist, many national and global initiatives remain piecemeal and palliative, certainly since the neoliberal turn. Although the reigning dominant doctrine for development includes a concern for welfare, much social policymaking has been criticised for being too narrowly concerned with poverty reduction and thus insufficient for making a significant dent in existing power relations. Especially in a development context, however, social policy must address the larger picture by connecting issues of production, reproduction and protection, as Thandika Mkandawire has so powerfully argued. He called for acknowledging and fostering the transformative potential of social policy, and his intellectual legacy is a gift in the continuing pursuit of transformation on the continent. After his death on 27 March last year, it now falls to his long-time companions as well as the new generation of scholars to keep the agenda alive. The volume reviewed in this blogpost, edited by ROAPE’s Jimi O. Adesina and published by CODESRIA in August this year, is dedicated to Thandika and his vision – it makes for a worthy tribute.

The professed aim of Social Policy in an African Context is to rescue social policy from the assault of neoliberalism by carving out the necessary intellectual space for sovereign and transformative policymaking that is able to tackle the “root causes” of social problems, as Adesina argues. Indeed, the book argues that visionary policies require intellectual grounding, reflection, and innovation; scholarship that conceptually expands the universe of thinkable strategies and empirically interrogates the appropriateness and effectiveness of social interventions. The book is based on the Social Policy in Africa conference of 2017 (which takes place bi-annually, again on 22-24 November, 2021) and assembles a total of 14 chapters, which study social policy in a variety of country contexts and fields. While each would merit a thorough review on its own, I will concentrate on what I consider the key overriding insights that the contributions collectively produce. Overall, the book constitutes an important step forward for critical social policy scholarship but also demonstrates that there remains a lot left to be done not only in formulating emancipatory visions but also in understanding better the impoverished form of social policy that we are up against.

What becomes more than clear throughout this volume is the importance of adopting a long-term view on social policy and seeing it as part and parcel of the ongoing project of decolonisation, development, and nation-building, as Tade Akin Aina argues in the second chapter of the book: “Africa needs to move towards sustainable, inclusive and democratic development more than ever before” (p. 13). Social policy develops over the longue durée; welfare states need to be negotiated and borne by all relevant social forces: governments, formal and informal workers, and society at large. In Africa, this process has been cut short, and the current focus on social policy must be seen as a return to what had essentially started at independence. As Katja Hujo argues in chapter three, the formation of social policy systems began long ago but was “aborted prematurely, with the state losing its steering and coordinating function in both social and economic policy” (p. 35). I see this and Aina’s claim that “the aims of the African project remain fundamentally unchanged yet unfulfilled over the past five decades” (p. 20) to be very much in line with how Thandika Mkandawire spoke about “Africa rising” some years ago, emphasising that the growth at the time was actually a recovery from the recession that structural adjustment had produced during Africa’s “lost decades”. In this unfinished recovery, social policy has a vital role to play.

A comparison with welfare states in other parts of the world, even though they have developed in different political moments, illustrates that welfare state building takes time. German health insurance, for example, has been scaled up over many decades until it covered all professions and citizens. In the book, Augustine I. Omoruan uses the German, Thai and Rwandan examples to understand why the Nigerian health insurance scheme is not achieving its goal of universal coverage. Having been developed as a response to the negative consequences of privatising healthcare during the 1980s and 1990s, the challenges for the scheme are manifold, including a large rural population, lack of solidarity, inadequate resource mobilisation, the fragmentation of the scheme itself, and the lack of cross-financing with other schemes. The cross-country comparison shows how these challenges might be tackled but also that strategic policy learning and consistency will be key.

Linking social policy and employment, despite wide-spread informal working relationships, is one aspect of the transformative agenda, according to Katja Hujo. She holds that this will require strengthening the bargaining position of informal workers and ensuring that both sectors become interlinked within the construction of a welfare state. She also reminds us that, ultimately, social policy cannot be divorced from economic policies, not least because widening the resource base through economic diversification will be one important component in ensuring sustainable social policy financing.

The importance of thinking about social and economic policies in tandem is highlighted in two chapters that focus on agriculture, a field of growing importance. Clement Chipenda makes clear, based on his research in Zimbabwe, that social protection gains in effectiveness when preceded by the redistribution of land. The Fast.Track Land Reform provided a way for farmers to become food secure by enabling them to build granaries, it provided them with shelter, allowed them to have family gardens and to keep livestock. Where coupled with the provision of farming inputs, the benefits could be exploited even more effectively. Yet, there is often a tendency to prevent the same households from benefiting under more than one scheme, which runs the risk of missing out on important synergy effects. Newman Tekwa then drives the point home that land reform alone, if not coupled with other services, can only achieve so much, and might even have adverse effects, for instance when women need to off-set the “shortfall that results from the deficient provision of social infrastructure” (p. 81).

Aligning social with other policies requires state capacity, and in many places, this, too, needs to be re-built. The chapter by Marion Ouma and Jimi O. Adesina shows not only that state actors are often aware of the need for seeing social policy as part of a larger developmental process, but also that the state is often side-lined by donors who promote specific social policy models based on their own interests. Their discussion substantiates the importance of carving out that space for sovereign policymaking, which will require capacity at all levels of the state. Moreover, social policy not only requires administrative capacity, it also must rest on a broader sense of community and solidarity. At the macro-level, such nation-building has historically been one of the overriding aims that social policy was meant to serve.

Ndangwa Noyoo and Emmanuel Boon make this very clear in their comparison of Zambia and Ghana, where equity and delivering economic growth for everyone were part of decolonisation and development. Kaunda and Nkrumah invested in manufacturing, agriculture as well as universal social services to lend credibility to the new nations. Without idealising either of the two leaders, the authors argue that what had been set in motion after independence could well hold important lessons going forward.

While nation-building seems like an abstract endeavour, I would hold that it ultimately boils down to creating structures of solidarity, belonging, and mutual support at the micro level. The chapter by Kolawole Omomowo and Jimi O. Adesina on communal mutual support structures in two South African townships, demonstrates very well how social policy can contribute to a sense of community. They argue that theself-help groups (e.g., credit and savings associations) in their two case-studies, which combine economic rationality and social values, should be seen as “a reservoir of organic praxis that could inform the broad planning of collective consumption to foster social wellbeing” (p. 182).

Similarly, in their chapter on farming cooperatives in Ethiopia, Kristie Drucza and Dagmawit Giref Sahile present the different forms of social capital that accrue from these groups. They find that while informal groups are declining, formal, state-registered ones are multiplying, and suggest that this might have to do with the specific advantages that connections to the state bring, such as access to inputs. Yet, they hold, top-down initiated structures should take customs and local values seriously and learn from grown informal arrangements.

Informal social protection arrangements deserve special discussion in the African context, given how long communities needed to cope without inclusion in formal schemes. As suggested by some of the book’s contributors, they can offer very valuable insights into what types of social policies work for people in real-life situations. But non-state actors, as Jonathan Makuwira makes clear, not only provide social services but also play important advocacy roles. He draws on examples from Malawi, Ethiopia, and South Africa, where non-state actors successfully lobbied for disability-inclusiveness, adult and non-formal education, and access to comprehensive AIDS prevention and treatment services, respectively, to argue that social policy development is ultimately a political process.

This view presents social protection as a human right that must be guided by universality, justice, democracy, and empowerment, as Hujo spells out; a point that is further underlined by Marlize Rabe’s study of gender relations in South Africa. Rabe describes how the importance of the mining sector in the country has historically contributed to men being disconnected from their families and care work, as well as to dominant notions of masculinity. These notions of masculinity ascribe men with ideas of being the main breadwinner, which exerts additional stress when these expectations are impossible to fulfil. So, social protection, she argues, needs to address these perceptions, too, and cites the example of an NGO that works towards changing gender perceptions and practices among people living in impoverished areas.

This example and other contributions demonstrate that social policy evolution still requires a better understanding of social problems. One of the drivers for social policy is inequality, but this concept is far from straight-forward, as Boaz Munga shows. Focussing on the Kenyan case, he compares the much-used Gini coefficient, the Atkinson and Theil indices, and the Palma index that is based on decomposing for income deciles. The latter addresses the problem that the Gini coefficient tends to gloss over changes at the bottom and top of the income distribution. He then shows the importance of regional variation that has to inform social policymaking. When looking at expenditure shares per decile over time and then disaggregating this for rural and urban households in Kenya, for example, it becomes clear that between 1994 and 2005-06, the expenditure share of the top decile in urban areas increased considerably more (from 23 to 42 percent) while that of the top decile in rural areas fell (from 30 to 26 percent). Practically, this means that addressing inequality within urban areas would be most effective for reducing inequality overall and becoming alert to growing shares of income held by the top decile, I would add, can be one important political lever to put the sustainable financing of social policies back on the agenda – another component of the transformative framework.

Looking at a very different problem, Walid Merouani, Nacer-Eddine Hammouda and Claire El Moudde also demonstrate the practical impact that research could make. Based on survey data, they show that social insurance uptake in Algeria is impeded by future-discounting behaviour and a lack of knowledge about existing social insurance schemes. They then derive practical suggestions such as coupling social insurance with more immediate benefits like child support and call for improving the visibility of the schemes. In addition, this and other chapters exemplify how worthwhile it is to focus on people’s own perspectives. Taking the knowledge, experiences and perceptions of communities seriously will make policies more effective.

To end my review on a slightly critical note, the book could have benefited from a deeper empirical unpacking of what is referred to as the “narrow” or “neoliberal” version of social policy. Katja Hujo states clearly that this version is characterised by “endorsing rather than questioning mainstream orthodox economic recipes and ignoring unequal power relations”, and often appears through targeted conditional cash transfers and privatised social services. But she also points out that the structural adjustment period had not fully resolved the role of social policy, even after the “social turn” had taken hold. Given that the neoliberal response to social problems is far from being a thing of the past, and that the covid crisis and economic recession might even be revitalising the risk approach to social protection, the criticism voiced in this book (and elsewhere) seems to be directed at a moving target. Although several chapters nuance our understanding of it indirectly – as having individualising effects (Omomowo’s and Adesina’s chapter); segregating social schemes for different groups (Omoruan’s chapter); avoiding redistributing the means of production (Chipenda’s chapter); and being blind to underlying societal hierarchies (see Rabe’s chapter), I would argue that we need more work directed at understanding its many faces. We need to interrogate the present moment with its new and complicated economic, political, environmental, and ideological challenges, while picking up the threads of building transformative social policy on the continent. With its timely and important intervention into the debates on radical social policy in Africa, this collection contributes a significant step forward.

Jimi O. Adesina (ed) Social Policy in the African Context (Dakar: CODESRIA, 2021).

Anna Wolkenhauer is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bremen, Germany. She wrote her PhD thesis on state formation and social policy in Zambia and has been involved with social protection advocacy in the SADC region since 2014. @AnnaWolke0201

Featured Photograph: Community action in Valhalla Park (Cape Town), South Africa (Lindsay Mgbor, 12 February 2013).