Stigma and Social Assistance in the Global South: Myth or an Overlooked Reality?

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  Click here to access the article.

Welfare stigma is a well-known and strongly researched phenomenon in high-income countries such as the UK and US. Movies such as I, Daniel Blake provide a potent insight into life on benefits and the many ways in which it undermines claimants’ dignity. This has devastating effects on people’s lives, leading to feelings of shame and eroding self-esteem. As the main character himself puts it: “When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for”.

Despite the long history of evidence and debate on welfare stigma – both in academia and mainstream media – in high-income countries, very little is known about this topic in low and middle-income countries.

Welfare (or ‘social assistance’) has rapidly expanded in the last decade with almost all countries now implementing one or more policies. This policy expansion has gone hand-in-hand with a large increase in research, mostly focused on evaluations of small-scale pilot interventions. Findings of these evaluations point to positive effects on material wellbeing, access to services and, as a result, on psychosocial wellbeing and dignity. The notion of stigma, however, is mostly absent from research and policy debates on social assistance in the Global South.

In my article, I undertook a critical review of literature on social assistance policies across low and middle-income countries to explore whether stigma is simply not a feature of such policies, or whether receipt of social assistance does indeed pose a stigma that is over-looked in research, policy and practice.

Forms of stigma

Stigma in relation to social assistance can manifest itself in various ways. Non-beneficiaries may approach beneficiaries of social assistance negatively and treat them differently, such as looking down on them or ignoring them. This can be referred to as ‘public stigma’.

Beneficiaries of social assistance may also experience stigma throughout the process of claiming or receiving transfers. For example, they may receive derogative treatment by service staff. This can be understood as ‘claims stigma’.

These types of stigma may be counteracted through a shared identity with others who hold the same stigma: other social assistance beneficiaries in this case. By contrast, beneficiaries may also seek to establish a distance between themselves and other beneficiaries through a process of ‘othering’, thereby opposing the notion that they are the same and that the stigma of social assistance also holds for them.

These processes take place against the backdrop of public discourse and narratives regarding poverty and social assistance, and the extent to which living in poverty and receipt of social assistance is associated with negative stereotypes. Rhetoric that blames the poor for their situation and popular use of words such as ‘scroungers’ are symptomatic of structural stigma that offers fertile feeding ground for other forms of stigma.

In combination, these various forms of stigma can lead to their internalisation, and ultimately self-stigma and shame.

Social assistance to counteract stigma?

Most of the research on the effect of social assistance on psychosocial wellbeing in low and middle-income countries has focused on how receipt of social assistance may counteract stigma and shame. Many evaluations find that greater availability of cash can improve dignity as it allows beneficiaries to undo themselves of ‘stigma symbols’ associated with poverty and to participate more fully in their societies. Being able to purchase school uniforms, shoes and clothing; to go to the hairdresser; and to buy on credit – so that there is no more need to beg from family members – were all cited as examples of how social assistance can promote dignity and self-respect.

Does social assistance induce stigma?

Despite a lack of focus on stigma in research and debates on social protection in low and middle-income countries, a review of literature suggests that stigma is certainly a feature of social assistance. Evidence is more widely available in middle-income countries, and most prominent in relation to claims stigma and ‘othering’.

In line with experiences in high-income countries, the process of applying for social assistance and adhering to conditions can be fraught with negative experiences. Female beneficiaries of the Child Support Grant in South Africa, for example, are asked to explain their single-parenthood and why they are no longer with the fathers of their children. In Peru, female beneficiaries have to wait many hours outside of the welfare office in the glaring sun to receive their transfers. These experiences were considered shameful.

There is little evidence that social assistance beneficiaries experience a ‘shared identity’ that might help to counter any stigma. By contrast, the process of ‘othering’ – and distancing oneself from individualised responsibility for one’s situation – appeared more prevalent. In Pakistan, beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) did not feel ashamed to receive support as they attributed their situation to wider economic structures. Beneficiaries of the Child Support Grant in South Africa explicitly distinguished their own situation from others, attributing their own misfortune to fledging labour markets but accusing other beneficiaries of laziness. This, in turn, contributes to the cycle of stigma.

Is stigma institutionalised?

Societal and cultural belief systems that hold beneficiaries of social assistance responsible for their own situation can serve to institutionalise stigma. We find most evidence for structural stigma in middle-income countries. In China, for example, modernisation and greater focus on socioeconomic status has meant that those left behind by economic growth, and particularly those living in urban poverty, have become increasingly viewed as failed individuals displaying dysfunctional behaviour.

Structural stigma appears much less prominent in low-income countries. Nevertheless, policy rhetoric in countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda suggests alignment with neoliberal perspectives that posit the role of the state as offering temporary support to those most deserving but ultimately place the responsibility of moving out of poverty with the individual.

Social assistance and stigma: zero-sum game?

Positive and negative effects of social assistance on stigma and shame clearly co-exist. However, far too little evidence is available to judge whether social assistance receipt overwhelmingly negates or plays into stigma, particularly in low-income countries. Greater awareness of the interface between social assistance, shame and stigma, explorations of policy options that minimise or counter stigmatisation, and critical engagement with ideological and political discourse underpinning design and delivery of interventions represent crucial steps to move towards ‘shame proofing’ social assistance in low- and middle-income countries.


About the author

Keetie Roelen is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.

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