Social cash transfer programmes (SCTs) have spread rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa during the last decade, with international development agencies playing a major role in this process. Theoretical advances suggest that transnational policy transfer is most effective when international actors are able to align their proposals with domestic political dynamics. This article examines how the adoption of a ‘thinking and working politically’ approach enabled donors to shape the uptake of SCTs in Uganda. It investigates what happens when a ‘going with the grain’ approach is deployed in a context where domestic political dynamics are moving further away from the progressive forms of politics that proponents of social protection in Africa have often heralded.
The article is based on an in-depth qualitative case study of the promotion of SCTs in Uganda. Over 35 key informant interviews were undertaken with all key stakeholders, particularly between 2014-2016 after the government of Uganda announced a scaling-up of SCTs. The triangulation of these accounts within a rigorous process-tracing methodology enables us to link key turning points in this process to donor strategies and Uganda’s changing political settlement.
Donor efforts to promote SCTs in Uganda prospered when a shift was made from a technocratic to a more politically-informed approach in the late 2000s. By employing strategies from the new ‘thinking and working politically’ agenda, an alignment was eventually achieved between SCTs and Uganda’s shifting political settlement, including the president’s increased vulnerability to popular pressures and the commercialization of patron-client politics. However, cash transfers have been adopted primarily as a form of clientelism rather than as a strategy for promoting either significant levels of poverty reduction or an improved social contract. This raises questions both about the developmental character of politics in Uganda and the problems that may emerge when donors seek to ‘think and work politically’ in such contexts.