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The social politics of risk in Africa (AFRICAs RISKS)

From September 1, 2023 to August 31, 2027
Funding programme: Proyectos de Generación del Conocimiento

Grant number: PID2022-140461NB-I00

African societies are exposed to ever more complex sources of risk, including health pandemics, climate change-related shocks, and global macro-economic volatility. In these contexts, social protection policies increasingly move into the focus of national and international attention. For example, poverty-targeted cash transfers and various forms of non-contributory health and social insurance are now widely regarded as effective means to protect vulnerable populations from the worst impacts of a looming ‘poly-crisis’. Yet, what is less well understood is the political feasibility of these policies. Available literature by aid agencies and evaluation experts mostly focuses on the design or impact of specific social protection instruments. However, it often does not illuminate the political obstacles that frequently prevented the introduction of stronger safety nets in the past, nor the conditions that would enable future reforms.

The project AFRICAs RISKS aims to fill this gap. Its first objective is to move experiences of risk and crises more centrally into the analysis of when and why new safety net policies are adopted or not. We build and expand on a large literature that already incorporates exposures to risk and the corresponding insurance function of social programs to explain the expansion of social policies in other parts of the world. While these perspectives have so far received surprisingly little attention in the African context, we argue that they offer particularly strong insights in a region where existing public safety nets often originated in responses to shorter-term humanitarian crises. In an effort to adapt the above theories to the African setting, we plan to focus in particular on the effects of temporal shocks like health pandemics (e.g. Covid, Ebola), price shocks, and climatic emergencies. We hypothesize that, within the region’s imperfect welfare states, these latter events are much more probable drivers of policy innovation than other more widely-studied variables, such as slower-moving structural change, trade, or poverty and inequality.

Our second objective is to expand on the vastly understudied demand-side of social protection reform in Africa. The weakness of democratic institutions, and the small public constituencies linked to rudimentary earlier welfare programs, have often meant that societal demands for social policies have so far received little attention. We argue that a structural shift towards stronger social protection systems since the early 2000s and especially during the Covid crisis creates a context that allows rectifying this trend. Building on qualitative evidence, surveys and survey experiments, we will explore how people’s social policy preferences are shaped by experiences of risk, shocks, and previous personal exposure to public safety nets. We also plan to explore questions of immediate practical relevance, such as citizens’ willingness to accept widely-endorsed reform proposals that entail the replacement of existing, but relatively inefficient and environmentally harmful interventions, like fuel subsidies, with targeted cash transfers. Across the two study objectives, we will focus on four case study countries that vary in their degree of risk exposure, historical welfare state development, and their recent social policy responses (Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, Zambia). This will be complemented by the analysis of Africa-wide survey and social protection data to establish the validity of our results for the wider study region.

Research Clusters related to the project

External Contributors

  • Diane Zovighian (Science Po)
  • Miriam Bradley (The University of Manchester)
  • Benjamin Chemouni (UCLouvain)

Funding institutions

Frank Borge Wietzke
Frank Borge Wietzke
Contact person
Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación (Ministry of Science)