Opinion: Why we need expanded social protection in Kenya

By Shaheen Nilofer, UNICEF Representative to Kenya and Keith Hansen, World Bank Country Director for Kenya

17 July 2023

This Op-Ed was first published in the Standard Media

Kenya has been a pioneer across Africa in establishing evidence-based social protection schemes that protect and support its poorest households. This includes the Cash Transfer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (CT-OVC) programme, which reached 280,000 households by 2022, having started as a pilot in 2004 with just 500 households.

Regular cash transfer schemes are one of the most highly studied and effective examples of social protection, which also includes school meals, health insurance and others. Children are one of the most vulnerable groups who are disproportionately affected by poverty. Social protection helps address the financial and other barriers that can prevent families and children from accessing basic services. It can ensure that all children, regardless of who they are or where they live, can enjoy their rights to better nutrition, health care and education.

While expansion of social protection needs to be fiscally sustainable, increasing investment in it as the economy grows is a key strategy that countries have used globally. Furthermore, social protection is highly effective at improving equality, which evidence has shown is a critical component for strong and sustainable growth.

Cash transfers have shown to be a smart investment, enhancing household spending and productivity as well as stimulating local economies. Studies in Kenya show that every 100 shillings paid out in cash transfers generates an additional 30 to 80 shillings, through increased economic activity.

There is currently an urgent need to scale up investments in social protection in Kenya, particularly for children. Currently, the only nationwide income support programme specifically aimed at children is the CT-OVC programme. Unfortunately, its coverage has reduced over the years, from 350,000 households in 2016/17 to 280,000 in 2022/23. Disturbingly, there are 13 million children in Kenya living in poverty. This means that 12.7 million lack the critical support they need.

The recently concluded Kenya Social Protection Conference 2023 produced a set of recommendations, covering three key areas.

First, the Government, during the Conference, committed to increase social protection coverage, including to increase coverage of the National Safety Net Programme from 1.2 to 2.5 million households. Given the decline in the reach of national programmes, an annual increase of 30 percent in coverage rates is needed to ensure that half of those living in poverty receive the necessary support by 2030, with particular emphasis on poor and vulnerable children. Also, considering that the monthly cash transfer amount has not changed since 2012 despite the yearly inflation rates exceeding 6% eroding purchasing power, there is a need to revisit it. The cash transfers should be paid on time and on schedule because they serve as a lifeline for most families.

Second, it is essential to strengthen the existing Government social protection system by implementing “cash plus” programmes, which provide additional benefits alongside cash transfers. The Nutrition Improvement through Cash and Health Education (NICHE) programme supported by UNICEF, UK’s Foreign Commonwealth, and Development Office, and the World Bank is one example. It is benefitting Kilifi, Kitui, Marsabit, Turkana and West Pokot counties to reduce malnutrition and improve health of young children from poor families. It provides a regular cash supplement to caregivers with children aged under three years in the national safety net programmes, alongside nutrition counselling and training on positive parenting.

Third, there is a pressing need to harness social protection programmes and systems more effectively to build resilience and improve the response to shocks affecting vulnerable families, including those that are climate related. This can help mitigate the detrimental impacts on communities, while also reducing the substantial cost of emergency response.

For the 12.7 million children in Kenya who require assistance, expanding these programmes has the potential for a truly transformative impact on their lives.

That is why UNICEF, and the World Bank are committed to supporting the Government in its efforts to strengthen social protection in Kenya. By joining forces and prioritizing the strengthening of cash transfers, we can effectively reduce inequalities and lift more children out of poverty. This will pave the way for a more equitable prosperous future for Kenya, where no child is left behind.


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