Beware of the Crocodile: Quantitative Evidence on How Universal Old Age Grants Distort the Social Assistance Systems of Low-Income Countries

This article compares two approaches to establishing or improving social assistance systems in low‐ and lower‐middle‐income countries. Taking Eswatini and Lesotho as examples of the mainstream approach, it provides quantitative evidence on the social protection outcomes of social assistance systems that are based on categorical programs and are dominated by universal Old Age Grants. Both countries fail to provide social assistance to large sections of the poorest and most vulnerable households. An alternative approach has been pursued in Malawi and in a number of other African countries like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. Malawi's social support system adopts a systemic, need‐oriented, and inclusive approach with means‐tested programs tailored to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable households. Such an approach does not focus on a single program but considers an ensemble of programs, which together ensure that the most pressing social needs are covered. This approach gives a fuller meaning to the human rights requisites of universalism by requiring that the overall arrangement of social protection in a country be universalistic, not just a single program.