WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2015 - Expanding social protection programs such as school feeding and public works in rural areas and linking them to agricultural growth policies would rapidly reduce the number of poor people around the world, a report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) contends.

The report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2015, argues that these programs offer an economical way to provide vulnerable people with opportunities to move out of extreme poverty and hunger and to improve their children's health, education and life chances. Such programs currently benefit 2.1 billion people in developing countries in various ways -- including keeping 150 million people out of extreme poverty.

The report was released in advance of World Food Day (Oct. 16), whose focus is on social protection's role in breaking the cycle of rural poverty. "It is urgent that we act to support the most vulnerable people in order to free the world of hunger," FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said.

Only about a third of the world's poorest people are covered by any form of social protection, according to the report, which noted that coverage rates dip even lower in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, regions with the highest incidence of extreme poverty.

Still, even the poorest countries can afford some kind of social protection program, the report says. FAO estimates that globally, some $67 billion a year in income supplements, mostly provided by social protection programs, would -- along with other targeted pro-poor investments in agriculture -- allow for the eradication of hunger by 2030. That is less than 0.10 percent of world GDP.

Currently many extremely poor households are forced to sell off productive assets, put children to work, over-exploit their small landholdings unsustainably, or settle for badly paid jobs.

Yet basic social transfer initiatives offer the poor an opportunity to improve their own productive potential, the report says, adding that these programs also have positive spillover effects on local economies, increasing business opportunities, raising rural wages, and allowing the poorest to acquire or invest in assets.

In Zambia for example, a pilot cash-grants program led recipient households to greatly increase livestock ownership as well as land under cultivation, input use and ownership of tools such as hoes, sickles and axes, leading to a 50 percent jump in the overall value of locally produced agricultural commodities.

Beneficiaries also spent more on food, clothing and health-and-hygiene - an amount 25 percent greater than the value of the initial transfer, according to FAO. The wider community also benefited through the increased demand for locally produced goods and services generated by the transfer -- every dollar transferred generates an additional 79 cents in income, often for non-beneficiaries providing these goods and services.

At least 145 countries today provide one or more forms of social assistance, including unconditional cash transfers, meaning outright grants for eligible recipients, conditional cash transfers, usually linked to school attendance or health checkups and, public-works programs that offer guaranteed employment. Other forms include in-kind transfers, including food distribution and school feeding programs.


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