Social Protection

The youngest children not only need services for themselves in order to survive and thrive, but they need a safe and protective environment.  That means their families and primary caregivers need to have the means to help their children grow and develop, including resources, time and services.  It is estimated that approximately 250 million children under 5 years in low- and middle-income countries live in extreme poverty.[i]  Extreme poverty is defined internationally as living on less than $1.90 per day.[ii] 

Social protection programs aim to alleviate poverty and reduce vulnerability of all people, including families and children.  Nearly two thirds of children around the world are not covered by social protection, even though some 689 million live in poverty and deprivation.[i]  Early childhood has received particular attention given that the youngest age group are the poorest and it is critical that young children’s rights are protected so they can grow and reach their full potential.  Nearly 20 percent of all children below 5 years in the developing world live in extremely poor households[ii]  Data from the Global Monitoring Database (GMD) of household surveys compiled in 2020 consisting of surveys from 149

Countries suggest that children were still disproportionately more likely to be in households living under $1.90 PPP per day compared to adults (17.5% vs. 7.9%).[iii]

Social protection programs focus on economic, social vulnerability and marginalisation together, and can have a protective, preventative, promotive and transformative role in supporting rights for children and parents/caregivers, including specific evidence around the role they can play in supporting gender equality.[iv]  They have proven as an effective tool to reduce poverty and food insecurity for children and wider population groups.  Social protection programs can 1. increase access to education and health services; 2. provide income security and protection for parents and caregivers to take time to raise children in the early years; 3. can help families obtain employment; and 4. provide a critical safety net in terms of unemployment or crisis and provide free linkages to other services such as parenting support, childcare or employment training schemes.

Social protection is particularly critical for families living in poverty as poverty can greatly impact a child’s ability to access education, health and other services.  Poverty and insufficient access to nutritious food can cause malnutrition and stunting.  Stunting in young children undermines their developmental potential. Poverty therefore puts children at risk of a lifetime of hardship.  By supporting families and their economic stability, social protection programs can greatly improve a young child’s development and his/her ability to survive and thrive.

This thematic page provides key information and resources for implementing organizations, policy makers and donors as they consider how to support young children through social protection programs.

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Some types of Social Protection Programs that support ECD

While there could be many types of social protection programs, here are some key ones that have been used to support families with young children.

  • Unconditional cash transfers (UCT): UCTs provide cash to all eligible and registered beneficiaries without conditionality. Recent research indicates that investment in universal cash transfers in middle income countries would lead to a reduction in child poverty of 20% or more. A joint paper by UNICEF and ODI (Universal Child Benefits: Policy Issues and Options) outlines options to progressively work towards UCBs, beginning with targeting the 0-4 age group. Universal approaches are associated with reduced administrative costs, reduction in exclusion errors and reduced risk of shame and stigmatisation as a result of receiving the benefit.
  • Conditional cash transfers (CCT): CCTs provide cash only to beneficiaries who have fulfilled prescribed conditions. Common conditions can range from child school attendance to preventive health checkups, among others (Garcia and Moore, 2012).
  • Cash transfer plus services (CCT +): CCTs + provide the same benefits as CCTs, but include an additional program component linked to the transfer. These components could include additional caregiver training, including vocational, nutritional, or educational; health services; gender equality, empowerment and information on rights, and/or an in-kind transfer. The idea behind these additional program components is to provide the sort of transformative benefit necessary to break free of the cycle of poverty and inequality.
  • In-Kind transfer: In-kind transfers provide non-cash benefits to eligible and registered beneficiaries. These are usually in the form of a commodity good (e.g. milk).
  • Social insurance (such as health insurance)



General Websites  – The Knowledge Sharing Platform on Social Protection


Briefs and Reports

UNICEF’s Social Protection Framework (2019),

UNICEF (2018), Making Cash Transfers work for Children and Families,

UNICEF & ODI (2020) Universal child benefits: policy issues and options

How cash transfers help girls continue their education in Kenya,

Promundo (2021), Paid Leave and the Pandemic: Effective Workplace Policies and Practices for a Time of Crisis and Beyond,

Promundo, Extending Paternity Leave in Colombia: Cost-Benefit Analysis and Fiscal Impact (SP),

The Alliance for Child Protection & Humanitarian Action: Social Protection & Child Protection – working together to protect children from the impact of COVID19 and beyond Y DE

Andrade, M., Sato, L., Hammad, M. (2021). Improving social protection for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt: An overview of international practices. Research Report No. 57. Brasília and Cairo: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

IPC-IG and UNICEF, ((2020). Maternidad y paternidad en el lugar de trabajo en América Latina y el Caribe — políticas para lanlicencia de maternidad y paternidad y apoyo a la lactancia materna. Brasilia and Panama City: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth and United Nations Children’s Fund Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office.

UNICEF, (2020). Gender-Responsive Age-Sensitive Social Protection: A conceptual framework, Innocenti Working Papers no. 2020-10, UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence,    


Program Guidance

UNICEF, Programme Guidance: Strengthening Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems,

UNICEF, Technical Note on Gender-Responsive Social Protection during COVID-19



Milman, H M. et al (2018), “Scaling up an early childhood development programme through a national multisectoral approach to social protection: lessons from Child Crece Contigo”, BMJ, 363,

Fernando, F. and Rossel, C. (2017), Confronting inequality: Social protection for families and early childhood through monetary transfers and care worldwide, UN ECLAC,

Betancourt, T. et al. (2020), “Integrating social protection and early childhood development: open trial of a family home-visiting intervention, Sugira Muryango”, Early Child Development and Care, 190:2, 219-235, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2018.1464002

Britto, P. et al. (2013), Social Protection Programs and Early Childhood Development: Unexplored Potential, Plan International, 

Aber, L., Biersteker, L., Dawes, A., & Rawlings, L. (2013), “Social Protection and Welfare Systems: Implications for early childhood development”, In Handbook of Early Childhood Development Research and Its Impact on Global Policy ,Oxford University Press. 

Struck, S. et al (2021), “An unconditional prenatal cash benefit is associated with improved birth and early childhood outcomes for Metis families in Manitoba, Canada”, Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 121,for%20low%2Dincome%20Metis%20families.&text=Among%20families%20who%20received%20the,birth%20weight%20and%20preterm%20births.&text=Children%20in%20families%20who%20received,fully%20vaccinated%20by%20age%202.


Blogs and Articles

Awkward Truths and the Changing Face of Social Protection

11 ThinkPieces on Gender-Responsive and Age-Sensitive Social Protection



[i] Chan, M., Lake, A. and Hansen, K. (2016), “The early years: Silent emergency or unique opportunity?”, The Lancet, Series: Advancing Early Childhood Development : From Science to Scale, 389, 11-13, London.


[iii] UNICEF,


[v] World Bank (2020), Global Estimate of Children in Monetary Poverty: An Update, 

[vi] UNICEF, (2020). Gender-Responsive Age-Sensitive Social Protection: A conceptual framework, Innocenti Working Papers no. 2020-10, UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence,

The Nurturing care framework for early childhood development: A framework for helping children SURVIVE and THRIVE to TRANS- FORM health and human potential builds upon state-of-the art evidence of how child development unfolds and of the effective policies and interventions that can improve early childhood de- velopment.