Information paper


Safety Nets and the Right to Food

Table of Contents


This note explores the role that social safety nets, and more specifically food safety nets, can play in realizing the right to food. We begin by briefly presenting the concept of food security and the obligations of the State within the right to food framework. We then explore the concept of food safety nets from a rights-based perspective. We finish by providing a more technical discussion of the key criteria to take into account when choosing a particular design, and we provide a description of different kinds of programs found around the world. Particular attention is paid to the choice between a cash or food-based transfer program.

States’ Obligation to Provide for the Realization of the Right to Food

“The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”1

States must respect, protect and fulfil (facilitate and provide) the right to food. This means that States should proactively engage in activities which assure economic and physical access to adequate food. The obligation to fulfil the right to food includes an obligation to provide food directly or the means for its purchase, when individuals are unable for reasons beyond their control to provide for themselves and their families. Such circumstances include youth and old age, disability, illness and long-term unemployment. Victims of natural and man-made disasters may also be unable temporarily to provide their own food. The creation of appropriate safety nets is one way of fulfilling the obligation to provide food and achieve food security. The World Food Summit defined food security as when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. The four pillars of food security are availability, stability of supply, access and utilization.”

Social safety nets and food safety nets

Social safety nets refer to cash or in-kind transfer programs which seek to reduce poverty through redistributing wealth and/or protect households against income shocks. Food safety nets are a subset of social safety nets, and aim to assure a minimum amount of food consumption and/or protect households against shocks to food consumption. Both social safety nets and food safety nets seek to assure a minimum level of well-being, a minimum level of nutrition, or help households manage risk, though often using different definitions or indicators of household or individual well being. While poverty and food insecurity are not necessarily the same phenomena, much overlap exists in terms of indicators. Social safety nets usually rely on different measures of poverty. Food safety nets may utilize these same measures or those more directly related to food insecurity.
Much has been written on the implementation of social safety nets.2 However, food safety nets have received relatively less specific attention.3 Both social safety nets and food safety nets use similar designs and instruments, examples of which will be described later, and both are likely to have both poverty and food insecurity impacts. However, neither social safety nets nor food safety nets will “solve” hunger or poverty. Instead, both must form an integral part of a larger policy of sustainable economic development which can provide jobs and economic opportunity. This wider policy framework must serve to fulfil the other right to food obligations, namely the obligation to respect, protect and facilitate the right to food.

The FAO advocates a twin track approach to achieving food security and the realization of the right to food. The first track includes measures to increase production, including by small farmers, as well as improve incomes. The second track includes food safety nets, or measures to broaden food access immediately for the food insecure. Food safety nets, as well as social safety nets, should be seen as development, however, not welfare. Reducing hunger and malnutrition lead to increased productivity and resilience to shocks through increased life expectancy, improved work ability (both in terms of cognitive as well as physical ability) and better health. Increased individual productivity ultimately leads to greater economic growth.4

Requirements of Rights-based Safety Nets

A rights-based social or food safety net explicitly recognizes that its purpose is to fulfil rights rather than provide discretionary charity. Such a safety net is designed and implemented with full regard for all human rights and may be closely related to the realization of other rights, such as the right to health, education, work and participation.
The right to food does not imply that the State must provide for each and every individual an equal amount of food. Only those unable to provide for themselves for reasons beyond their control should be thus provided for. Budgetary limitations, moreover, may mean that a State is not able to provide for everyone in need. In this case, the obligation is to move towards that goal as expeditiously as possible, using a maximum of available resources, including those available from external sources. States also have a core obligation to, at the very least, provide the minimum essential level required to be free from hunger.
From a rights-based perspective, the key principle that must be respected in the design and implementation of safety nets is non-discrimination. Thus, targeting must be based on objective criteria and the safety net must neither in intent nor effect be discriminatory. The experience of many countries shows that there are wide disparities in actual enjoyment of the right to food according to race, sex and caste or class. Safety nets may thus have to specifically target traditionally disadvantaged groups. It should be noted that such “positive discrimination” is not unlawful under international law as long as it does not continue beyond the achievement of equal enjoyment of rights. It is thus fully compatible with human rights to target women as main beneficiaries.
The process of designing and implementing safety nets should also respect participatory principles and empower intended beneficiaries, who should be explicitly recognized as stakeholders. Seeking the views of the stakeholders also increases the transparency of the process and the accountability of the duty-bearers. Ideally, the legal system should contain a right to social assistance in certain circumstances. Rights and obligations must be reasonably explicit so as to allow for prompt and effective administrative and/or judicial recourse in cases in which individuals are denied their entitlements. Effective information strategies are necessary, so that individuals are aware of their rights and where they may lodge complaints.
Respecting human dignity in the process of providing social safety nets is essential. Care must also be made to find a balance between transparency and of protection of privacy. In some cultures it is considered shameful to receive assistance or people may for other reasons not want it to be known that they receive assistance, for instance if they are HIV/AIDS affected. On the other hand, access to information about who benefits from interventions is crucial in order to allow for public scrutiny and accountability. Recipients of social assistance should not be stigmatised as this would violate their human dignity.

The broader aims of safety nets

Given the experience with social safety nets in both developed and developing countries, as will be shown in following section, safety nets can be seen as playing a much broader role than temporary providing for the right to food, by providing fungible resources which individuals or households can invest in productive activities, whether producing their own food or pursuing some non agricultural micro enterprise.
It should also be noted that most, but not all, food safety nets are compatible with market systems, and in fact the injection of resources to increase demand by consumers can foster development of local markets. When food safety nets involve in-kind subsidies, they can however, have a negative impact on markets, as discussed in greater detail below. Such interventions may be appropriate, however, when local markets are not well functioning.
If a safety net measure has a negative impact on local markets, this might mean that, while the realisation of the right to food of some might be improved, the realization of the right to food, or of other rights, of others might be decreased. Under human rights law such a measure with retrogressive effects would require the most careful consideration and would need to be fully justified by reference to the totality of human rights and in the context of the full use of the maximum available resources.5

Food safety nets, if designed properly, can constitute a valuable component of national right to food strategy based on human rights principles that defines objectives, and formulates policies and corresponding benchmarks.

Key criteria for choosing a particular design

The first key question choosing a particular food safety net design is to determine the nature of food insecurity within a given area, whether national, regional or local. The nature of food insecurity will determine key aspects of programme design. The following are a number of possible aspects of food insecurity which should be considered
• Seasonality
In many countries, particularly in agricultural settings where rural food markets do not function very well, or where farmers are dependent on own production for home consumption or income, food insecurity may be seasonal in nature. In this situation, typically food insecurity is greatest in those months prior to the harvest of the primary food crop. If food availability is low at planting time this can have a serious negative impact on the next harvest and trigger a downward spiral in production and consumption.
• Disasters/emergencies
Susceptibility to disasters or emergency situations such as floods, droughts and war can be a cause of food insecurity, but the chronically hungry are also especially vulnerable to shocks. Some emergency situations may be unforeseen, but in most countries susceptibility to different types of disaster can be assessed, as well as household ability to weather these disasters, and thus a food safety net intervention in response can be designed beforehand.
• Lack of assets
A key structural cause of food insecurity is the low level of productive assets to which the poor have access. Lack of assets translates into low income, an inability to invest and accumulate assets, and ultimately a lack of purchasing power. The lack of assets can cause either chronic food insecurity, through the inability to generate income or produce enough food for home consumption, or make individuals and households more susceptible to food insecurity as a result of unforeseen shocks, whether at the household level (sickness, death, loss of job) or regional or national level (weather, etc.).
The spread of HIV/AIDS throughout much of Africa and other areas of the developing world is having a particularly insidious effect on individual and household food security. The disease strips households of both their adult income earners and available household labour for agricultural production, in many cases leaving children as orphans. The epidemic has an impact on food security beyond a particular household, as the shortage of farm labour can reduce the availability of locally produced food.
• Intra-household
In some cases, a household as a whole may be considered food secure (in terms of the per capita availability of income or calories, or some other measure), but some members of the household may be food insecure. Similarly a household may be considered food insecure, but in many cases it is unlikely that all household members have the same level of food insecurity. Typically women, particularly pregnant or lactating women, and small children suffer from higher levels of food insecurity, as manifested by malnutrition, for example.
• Knowledge of food needs
A substantial amount of under-nourishment as well as malnourishment is attributable to lack of knowledge on the part of consumers as to the amount and mix of food required for a full and productive life. In such situations, the key need is for nutrition education.
• Geography
Food insecurity is unlikely to be spatially distributed in a uniform manner across a country or given area. Like poverty, food insecurity is often concentrated in certain regions or communities, or among certain types of households. Knowledge of the geographical distribution of food insecurity is important for the targeting of food safety nets, as well as for the design of the intervention itself.
• Local food markets
The existence and functioning of local food markets is a key determinant of the design of a food safety net. The existence of food insecurity in areas with well functioning and reasonably accessible food markets suggests that the problem is one of purchasing power; that is, that the food insecure do not have enough income to purchase sufficient levels of food. In this case, programmes should be focused on improving income generating opportunities and/or providing cash-based transfers. If food markets are not well functioning, then the supply of food may be the key underlying problem, which would suggest that a programme should provide food directly, or take measures to increase market supply and the functioning of local markets.

The second key aspect involves defining programme objectives. Is the envisioned food safety net supposed to alleviate temporary or structural food insecurity, or both? A structural programme would focus on building up household assets, whether they be human (education and health) or productive (land and cattle, agricultural technology, small business capital), as well as public goods, such as roads, available to food insecure households, so that individuals in the long run can avoid food insecurity. A temporary programme would focus on assuring that households have a minimum level of food security immediately. This type of programme would generally consist of cash or food aid provided directly to needy households, for a specific period of time. Some interventions combine both types of programmes. Other programme objectives could include empowerment of the poor, or women specifically, or addressing specific types of food insecurity, such as malnutrition among children. However, as a general rule, the greater the number of programme objectives, the less effective or efficient a given intervention is in meeting any individual objective.
A third key aspect involves administrative and budgetary resources. Administrative resources determine the capacity of a given government or organization to carry out an intervention. In many LDCs administrative capacity is extremely limited due to weak government institutions and a shortage of qualified personnel. Administrative limits may thus constrain the level of complexity and the reach of a given intervention. Tight budgets obviously constrain programme design, most clearly in forcing a decision between coverage and the size of a given transfer. For a given budget, the larger the transfer (or cost) per household, the smaller the population that can be covered.
The fourth aspect revolves around the relative roles of different levels of government and civil society. This depends in part on the institutional history of a given country, both in terms of the administrative and budgetary distribution of responsibility, as well as the desire to correct or avoid institutional programmes, such as lack of democracy at local levels. Another important decision involves the appropriate role of civil society, both beneficiaries and non beneficiaries, in administering, verifying and evaluating the implementation of a programme.
This issue is related to the fifth aspect, the politics, public opinion and tradition of a given country. These factors may govern what kind of food safety net is acceptable in the eyes of public opinion, or that with which it is politically feasible to propose and implement. The type of transfer is often a particularly sensitive topic; cash transfers for example are often less politically acceptable then food stamps.
Sixth, programme design is also guided by the type of incentive effects that policymakers want to promote or discourage. Positive incentive effects may include increased food consumption, better nutrition behaviour or increased political participation. Negative incentive effects include working less, cheating, increased consumption of alcohol or drugs, or local political corruption.
Seventh and lastly, and connected to the previous issue, the preferences of the target population should be considered. Potential beneficiaries may prefer a certain kind of programme for economic, social or cultural reasons. For example, households may prefer cash because it allows greater flexibility in meeting diverse needs, and indigenous communities may resist measures targeted at the individual or household level, preferring instead community based measures. Ignoring local preferences may reduce the impact of a given intervention.
Beyond these key criteria, a number of other elements are important to programme design.

• Targeting mechanism. Most interventions are targeted towards a specific region or type of household, as budgetary and equity reasons compel minimization of the leakage and undercoverage errors. The methodology chosen to reach that target population is a crucial decision which determines in large part the effectiveness of an intervention. Many methodologies are available (see a review in Coady, Grosh and Hoddinott, 2002), and choice depends on programme objectives and design, the availability of data, budget and the operational capacity of the implementing agency. Some programmes are considered self targeting, in that wages are so low, or requirements so high, that only the poorest households will participate. Such a self targeting scheme has other advantages and disadvantages.
• Choice of beneficiary. For those programmes focusing on specific households, it is usually necessary to choose one adult as the person actually to receive the benefits of the programme. The choice of the beneficiary will depend on the programme objectives, but most cash and food-based transfer programmes now give priority to the responsible female in a household. This concept, which has become conventional wisdom in the development arena, is based on empirical evidence that females spend income differently than men. In particular, women are more likely to spend own-earned income on nutrition and children’s health and education while men are more likely to allocate income under their control to tobacco and alcohol. These gender differences in the allocation of income seem to be especially relevant among poor households (see, for example, Haddad, Hoddinott and Alderman, 1997). However, among the effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is an increased number of child-headed households
• Exit criteria. Ultimately exit criteria should be determined by the programme objectives. However, getting individuals or households off a programme is politically sensitive and often technically challenging. In some cases it is feasible for exit criteria to be determined by programme objectives. Conditional cash transfer programmes linking payments to education should terminate participation once children have reached a certain age, and temporary programmes should exit households once these households no longer need assistance. This last rule, common in the United States and Europe, is very difficult for logistical reasons to implement, even in middle income countries. Often, simple time based measures are imposed. In any case, for low income countries simple and transparent exit criteria should be established.
• Evaluation. The important role that evaluation techniques should play in the selection, design, implementation and impact evaluation of food safety nets has gained increasing recognition in recent years. Evaluation techniques can serve to improve implementation and efficiency of programmes after interventions have begun, provide evidence as to the cost efficiency and impact of a specific intervention and provide information on comparison of interventions within and between policy sectors. They provide invaluable insight into the incentive structure and processes of an intervention, and as such form an essential part of policy design and of the agricultural and rural development process itself (Davis, 2003).

Design options

Three main types of design options for food safety nets are in use among developing countries: cash-based, food access-based and food supply-based. Cash-based programmes provide a cash transfer to beneficiary households, sometimes in return for actions taken by beneficiary households. A first type of cash-based programme is one in which there are no strings attached to the cash transfer. An example is ActionAid’s distribution of cash in parts of Ghana in 1994.6 A second type includes conditional cash transfer programmes, which have become fashionable in the Latin America and the Caribbean region in recent years. The PROGRESA (later renamed OPORTUNIDADES) programme in Mexico (1996 to the present) is the most prominent example. Here, households receive cash conditional on certain actions, typically school attendance by children and receiving health examinations.7 A third type is cash for work, in which households are paid to work on public works projects. An example would be the Maharastra Employment Guarantee Scheme (MEGS) in India which was introduced in 1973.8

Food access-based programmes seek to improve the ability of food insecure households to acquire food. These programmes are based on the presumption that food markets exist and are functioning reasonably well; that is, that the food supply curve is virtually horizontal and that an increase in demand will not lead to a substantial increase in food prices. One type of food access-based programmes involves a cash transfer, but the cash must be spent on food expenditures. This is the case of the recently launched (February, 2003) Carta Alimentaçao, a key component of the Fome Zero anti-hunger programme in Brazil. Households are restricted to spending the transfers only on food items, which is verified by the household providing receipts for the amount of the transfer (Presidencia da Republica, 2003). A second type of food access-based programmes includes food stamps, which have been used in a number of developed and developing countries, including Sri Lanka.9

Food supply-based programmes directly provide food or nutritional supplements to individuals or households. Some types of these programmes are based on the assumption that food markets are not well functioning; that is, that an increase in demand would lead to mostly inflation, or simply food is not available. This is the case of direct food aid or food for work programmes, which constitute the primary food safety net implementation of the World Food Programme. Other types of these programmes assume that some members of the household are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity or malnutrition, and thus specific directed food interventions, such as school lunches or food supplement programmes, are necessary. These types of interventions have been employed in many developing and developed countries.

Many food safety nets combine elements of these different options. A mix of these design options is appropriate when the causes of hunger vary across regions, households and/or individuals, necessitating a heterogeneous response, when the causes of hunger are multiple within a household, or when one programme has multiple objectives. For example, in Brazil, under the auspices of the larger Fome Zero programme, the Carta Alimentaçao described above is accompanied by other local development initiatives at the municipal level, including for example adult literacy, water cistern provision, school feeding, as well as programmes more regional or national in scope, including land reform and support for small-scale agriculture. Another example is the PROGRESA programme, which combines a conditional cash transfer with nutritional supplements directed towards pregnant and lactating mothers and infant children.

The choice between cash and food transfers

One of the most important decisions in designing a food safety net is between cash or food-based transfers. Both cash and food-based transfers effectively increase household income and thus the ability to acquire food. However, these programmes may have differential impacts on household food security (depending on how it is defined) and upon local markets. A cash-based transfer is appropriate when food markets work and access to food is the root cause of hunger. As discussed earlier, the food supply curve is virtually horizontal and an increase in demand will not lead to a substantial increase in food prices. A cash-based transfer should thus foster local market development, of not only foods, but other goods as well. Furthermore, unrestricted cash transfers allow poor households to invest and spend on what they consider most important. Studies have shown that even the poorest of the poor invest some portion of their transfer on self-employment or agricultural production activities.10

A food access-based approach, such as food stamps or restricted cash transfers, is also appropriate when local food markets work and access to food is the root cause of hunger. This approach will also foster local market development, primarily of food goods. Food access-based approaches have the advantage of being more politically acceptable, as we discussed earlier, because food is considered a merit good. It is very difficult to argue against providing food to the hungry. Food access-based transfers also may be more difficult to divert to “undesirable” consumption (such as alcohol), which is a concern in some quarters. Food access-based transfers also have lower transaction costs then food supply-based measures, but greater than cash-based measures, as programme design seeks to force spending on food items. On the downside, the restriction from spending on non food items also limits spending on investment, the potential importance of which we describe above. Further, restricting spending may spur other negative behaviour, such as cheating or selling food stamps on the black market.

A food supply-based approach is fundamentally different because it is most appropriate when an insufficient supply of food is the root cause of hunger. Cash in this case simply leads to inflation if markets are not working well or worse if food is simply not available as is the case in the worst of emergencies. As above, food supply-based programmes are also politically more acceptable. Moreover it is difficult to divert to undesirable consumption. Importantly, food aid is often donated and “free” to the receiving government. Further, food is essentially the currency of the WFP, the primary promoter of food based programmes around the world. On the downside, the availability of food aid may influence the selection of a non-optimal programme from the country’s perspective. Further, as with the food access-based approach, providing in-kind food aid limits investment or savings on the part of beneficiaries and may spur other negative behaviour, such as cheating or selling the food provided as aid.

Which of these types of programmes has a bigger impact on reducing hunger? Studies from the US (Fraker, 1990) show that food access-based transfers, such as food stamps, had a bigger impact on food consumption then cash-based transfers, though beneficiaries preferred receiving the cash. However, the impact of conditional cash transfer programmes on food consumption varies greatly across programmes in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given the disparities in income between the poor in the US and Latin America and the Caribbean, it is reasonable to expect a much higher marginal propensity to consume out of income in the latter, and thus less of a difference between the impact of food stamps and cash-access based transfers.

For both kinds of transfers, some diversion from food to non food consumption is likely take place. Households receiving food stamps may purchase as a result less food with their cash income (thus substituting between the two sources of income), or sell the food stamps on the black market at a discount. Households receiving cash income may of course spend the income as they please. For both kinds of transfers such diversion may be good or bad. Good diversion may include the purchase of agricultural implements or school clothes; alcohol is the main bad diversion.


Social and food safety nets serve as a method by which States may fulfil their obligation to provide for the implementation of the right to food of those that, for reasons beyond their control, cannot provide for it themselves. Social and food safety nets play a key role in fighting transitory and chronic hunger, including reducing the gravity of food emergencies, and thus in assuring the right to food. As all human rights are interdependent and interrelated, safety nets must be designed and implemented with due regard of other human rights, in particular other economic, social and cultural as well as political rights, and to the principle of non-discrimination. If adequately designed, safety nets can make an important contribution to poverty reduction and development through linkages with health, education and local economic activities. Given their important role in increasing productivity and thus economic growth, food safety nets should be thus considered investment and a contribution to long term development, not just welfare.
While conceptually the idea of a food safety net is straightforward, the formulation, design and implementation are complex. As we have described in this paper, many design possibilities exist. No specific programme design is better, a priori. A particular design should depend on local objectives and conditions. As such, design should be driven by the needs and circumstances of a particular country or region, and the views of the beneficiaries, rather than the needs and priorities of donor countries and agencies.


Buchanan-Smith, M., Jones, S. & Abimbilla, B. 1995. Review of the Bawku Emergency Programme, London, ActionAid. (Draft mimeo)

Castaneda, T. 1998. The Design, Implementation and Impact of Food Stamp Programs in Developing Countries. Colombia. (Draft mimeo)

Coady, D., Grosh, M. & Hoddinott, J. 2002. Targeting outcomes redux. FCND Discussion Paper No. 144. Washington, DC, IFPRI.

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 1999. General Comment No. 12 (The Right to Adequate Food), E/C.12/1999/5 (12 May 1999), available at:

Davis, B. 2003. Innovative policy instruments and evaluation in rural and agricultural development in Latin America and the Caribbean. In B. Davis, ed, Current and Emerging Issues for Economic Analysis and Policy Research-II: Latin America and the Caribbean. Rome, FAO.

FAO. 2001. The State of Food and Agriculture. Rome.

Fraker, T. 1990. The Effects of Food Stamps on Food consumption: A Review of the Literature. US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service.

Haddad, L., Hoddinott, J. & Alderman, H., eds. 1997. Intrahousehold resource allocation in developing countries. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press for IFPRI.

Peppiatt, D., Mitchell, J. & Holzmann, P. 2001. Cash transfers in emergencies: evaluating benefits and assessing risks. Humanitarian Practice Network Paper No. 35. London, ODI.

Presidencia da Republica, Government of Brazil. 2003. Decreto No. 4 675, de Abril de 2003. Brasilia, April (available at http://www.presidencia.gov.br/ccivil_03/decreto/2003/D4675.htm).

Rogers, B. & Coates, J. 2002. Food-based safety nets and related programs. Social Safety Net Primer Series, Washington, DC, The World Bank.

Subbarao, K. 2003. Systemic Shocks and Social Protection: Role and Effectiveness of Public Works Programs. Social Protection Discussion Paper Series, No. 0302, Washington, DC, The World Bank.

1 Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 12. General Comment No. 12 is an authoritative interpretation of the right to adequate food as contained in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which currently 147 States are parties.

2 See, for example, the following web site at the World Bank (http://www1.worldbank.org/sp/safetynets/htm).

3 One recent exception would be Rogers and Coates (2002).

4 For a review of the evidence on the relationship between hunger, nutrition and economic growth, see FAO, 2001.

5 See, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 3 The Nature of States Parties Obligations (1990), para. 9.

6 See Buchanan-Smith, Jones and Abimbilla (1995), cited in Peppiatt, Mitchell and Holzmann (2001), for an evaluation of this programme.

7 See Davis (2003) for a review of conditional cash transfer programmes in Latin America and the Caribbean.

8 See Subbarao (2003) for a review of public works programmes.

9 See Castaneda (1998) and Rogers and Coates (2002) for a review of the experience of food stamp programmes in developing countries.

10 See a review in Peppiatt, Mitchell and Holzmann (2001).