Strategic safety nets 

The Dutch Africa strategy is ‘the vehicle par excellence’ for increasing social protection for vulnerable groups, state Jochem Duinhof and Zina Nimeh in this opinion article. That is how you give these groups space ‘to assume their role in the community’ – and such an opportunity does not come along that often is their urgent message to the government ministers responsible for the strategy. 

By: Jochem Duinhof and Zina Nimeh 

A while ago, one of us was in Tanzania and visited Noni’s family. Noni is an eight-year-old girl and she enthusiastically spoke about her good school results. Her grandmother Adamma listened with pride. Due to rising food prices as a result of inflation, she has difficulty taking care of Noni and her older brother. 

Noni’s parents are both absent: her father fled the family immediately after Noni was born, and the mother now lives and works in a city far away. If civil society actors had not intervened, Adamma would have been on her own in raising her grandchildren. Then Noni would have almost certainly have been removed from school to help provide for the family’s livelihood. 

Lack of safety nets 

As the story shows, older persons in Africa are vulnerable to poverty and, in particular, they frequently suffer from a lack of social protection: only 27 percent receive some form of financial support after their working life (figures from 2020). They often then become dependent on those around them, and not everyone has access to a social safety net. 

Urbanisation and the deterioration of traditional extended families mean that older persons are left to take care of themselves. The lack of governments that can provide financial support also affects African older persons. According to research, the number of older persons receiving a pension is below ten percent in almost all African countries. 

As a result, they often have to provide for their livelihood and that of their grandchildren on their own and the risk that they end up in long-term poverty is very high. In Africa, only nine percent of persons with disabilities receive some form of financial support, and in 2020, just fifteen percent of mothers received some form of social benefits for their children. 

Opportunities within the strategy 

On Tuesday, 30 May, the Dutch government ministers Hoekstra (Foreign Affairs) and Schreinemacher (Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation) published the Dutch Africa strategy, which outlines the policy for ten to fifteen years. The strategy is an excellent opportunity to boost the development of social safety nets for older persons, persons with disabilities and vulnerable families with children so that they can play their part in the community. 

In its current form, the strategy pays little attention to this specific development challenge even though plenty of opportunities exist to tackle it effectively. For example, the Netherlands could more actively support African governments in providing a financial safety net to potentially vulnerable people, including older persons, in the form of benefits, pensions and health insurance. 

Such a safety net improves people’s resilience in the face of adversity, helps to prevent children from being taken out of school to contribute to the family’s livelihood or stops essential production assets from being sold to meet short-term needs. An additional advantage is that a financial safety net has no strings attached: recipients decide what they spend the money on, such as water, food or education. And research has demonstrated that this approach is effective. 

The Dutch government could help to realise this change by putting its own tax system in order so that Western multinationals can no longer channel African tax money through the Netherlands. And the Netherlands, together with the international community, could invest more in cancelling the debts of African nations. Both interventions are necessary to give African governments sufficient financial strength to provide social safety nets. 

Another way to contribute is to advocate internationally for a global social protection fund. New research has outlined for the first time how social protection funding could be available to all at a relatively low cost and that it would have tremendously positive effects on reducing poverty and inequality. The Africa strategy is the vehicle par excellence for developing such activities in the near future. 

Financial safety nets offer children like Noni a more stable home base from which they can develop and look forward to the day when they will be grandparents themselves – no child should be deprived of that perspective. 

Jochem Duinhof is a political advisor at Dorcas Aid International, and Zina Nimeh is an associate professor of public policy at the United Nations University in Maastricht. 

27 June 2023

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