Mothers wait to be seen in a therapeutic feeding centre in Maradi Region, Niger Mothers wait to be seen in a therapeutic feeding centre in Maradi Region, Niger Photo credit: UN Photo/WFP/Phil Behan
Using the Household Economy Approach to inform social protection programming in the Sahel
by Jessica Saulle, Nicola Hypher and Nick Martlew, Save the Children October 2012

The Household Economy Approach (HEA) is widely used as a framework for understanding food security, livelihoods and poverty. The framework also has the potential to inform social protection programming by improving understanding of the context in intervention areas, and enhancing targeting and coverage. In the Sahel, HEA has been used successfully for social protection programming in Niger and Mali in the form of safety nets based on regular cash transfers. Save the Children piloted safety nets in the Niger district of Tessaoua from 2008 to 2009 using HEA as a targeting and monitoring tool. The programme reached around 26,000 of the poorest households. Building on this experience, in 2009 Save the Children, Oxfam and the Government Institute of Rural Economy in Mali designed and implemented an 18-month safety net programme covering three livelihood zones.


Understanding poverty and vulnerability

HEA provides an insight into factors affecting poverty, profiling how people from different livelihood and wealth groups typically access food and income, what they spend their money on, the basic services they use and their savings, debts and assets. Analysing the contribution of food and income sources to the household economy helps us to understand the specific vulnerabilities of different wealth groups to various shocks. For instance, the HEA profiles conducted in northern Mali showed that, while there are more wealth-generating opportunities in the pastoral zones than in the neighbouring agropastoral zone, pastoralists rely on increasingly drought-depleted livestock herds for their food and income. HEA profiles establish a clear link between the successive food crises experienced over the last two decades and the rapid impoverishment of these communities due to herd depletion.

Livelihood disaggregation enables a better understanding of local definitions of poverty and vulnerability and enables agencies to select intervention areas based on livelihoods rather than administrative boundaries. Communities in some livelihood zones may have more income-earning opportunities, or may be less affected by shocks than households in other zones. For instance, households in areas close to main cities or trade routes have more diversified income sources and are thus less affected by drought-triggered food crises than their rural counterparts.

HEA also provides an insight into the interdependencies between wealth groups and between different livelihood zones throughout the seasons. In some pastoral and agropastoral areas in the Sahel, community support takes the form of animal lending and does not necessarily target the poorest households, who are not trusted by the rich to look after these animals. Instead, the poorest people work for richer households in their fields, as herders or as domestic workers. They are paid in-kind or in cash and are sometimes given credit by employers who depend on their labour and do not want to see them leave.

By disaggregating the population into livelihood zones and wealth groups, HEA has proved particularly useful in understanding the situation of the very poor. It has highlighted their reliance on the market for food, rather than their own production, their meagre income sources and how and when they reduce expenditure, are likely to become sick or might migrate. HEA has also helped to identify the coping mechanisms used by very poor households, and the point at which these coping mechanisms endanger the health of individual household members and the future viability of the household.

As the poor depend heavily on the market for food, even a small shock such as a price increase (even if seasonal) can have a disastrous effect on nutritional status as people have less access to foodstuffs. When the nutrition of young children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers is neglected, the damage to children’s physical growth and cognitive development can be lasting, and in some cases irreversible.+Save the Children (2012), A Chance to Grow. London: Save the Children. HEA can predict the impact on households and therefore inform programming to prevent households from using negative coping mechanisms. Such programming can take the form of social transfers.

Who to target first

Save the Children’s experience in the Sahel demonstrates that using HEA in social protection programming leads to cost-effective targeting compared to other targeting methods, such as means-testing. HEA enables us to decide who should be prioritised, and its simple and participatory approach to determining wealth criteria makes it easy for communities to understand and accept the targeting decisions that are based on it. Criteria for each wealth category are discussed and defined for each livelihood zone together with communities. HEA-based targeting is also easy for local government staff to use (while NGOs are still the main users of HEA, governments are showing greater interest as more officials are trained in using the framework for early warning purposes). However, as with most targeting systems care must be taken that local elites do not try to manipulate the system to their advantage.

The Mali safety net programme was designed using wealth criteria defined with communities in the selected livelihood zones in October and November 2009. The criteria were validated again by communities before proceeding with household selection. Both beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries stated that they found the system transparent across the project areas.

Understanding the transfer size and seasonality

HEA tells us what proportion of their needs households can meet themselves, and what they need in order to be able to live without compromising their future. Transfers should reflect the cost of a nutritious diet, as well as factoring in other household needs so that the transfer effectively protects food security and livelihoods, preventing malnutrition and the use of negative coping mechanisms such as migration, child labour, reducing or stopping education and health expenditures and selling assets. One limitation of HEA is that it does not address micro-nutrient requirements. To understand the economic barriers to a household’s access to micronutrients, and to ensure that families are eating the right nutrients throughout the year, HEA needs to be combined with another tool, the ‘Cost of Diet’, which provides a full overview of the availability and affordability of a nutritious diet in a particular context.+Save the Children, The Minimum Cost of a Healthy Diet, January 2009, cost-of-a-healthy-diet. This tool helps to determine the minimum cost and affordability of a diet for a family, taking into account seasonal variations in local prices and food availability.

HEA takes seasonality into account, as labour and incomeearning opportunities, food availability, health status and therefore food needs vary between seasons. For instance, in the agropastoral livelihood zone of northern Mali, crop production and related prices were crucial in defining what size of transfer was needed and when. Three cash transfers of varying amounts were made at different times of the year. In the first instalment, provided in April and May, beneficiary households were given enough to cover their basic needs and prepare for the planting season without having to borrow against future harvests. A second instalment was provided in July, during the rainy season (the hunger gap), to protect assets and cover basic needs, especially healthcare costs as malaria, diarrhoea and respiratory diseases are more prevalent during this time of year. A third instalment was provided to households at harvest time to enable them to buy cereals when prices were still low. This was important as the HEA indicated that the poorest households did not have sufficient cash to purchase cereals even when prices were low. The very poor can only purchase food when they happen to have money, which means that they buy small amounts and are highly vulnerable to seasonal price increases.

Understanding when scaling up is necessary and how much more is needed

Transfer amounts should be adjusted in line with seasonal price increases, but more significant scaling up may be necessary when the population faces a larger shock, such as the 2011/12 food crisis. Indeed, while social protection programmes can play a significant part in increasing a population’s resilience, they can play an equally important role in protecting the gains made by stopping crises before they happen.

The HEA outcome analysis tool, part of the HEA framework, allows for comparison between a difficult year and a baseline (reference) year. It can define the gap that various wealth groups in a particular livelihood zone are likely to face in the event of a shock, and what non-damaging coping strategies households use. HEA outcome analysis is being used increasingly in the Sahel by government-led early warning systems and by FEWS NET to predict how households in the various wealth groups and livelihood zones will be affected during the year to come. This exercise should be done as soon as it becomes clear that there will be a shock. For instance, in the case of a drought in the Sahel it can be done in early September. In showing the extent to which households are going to be affected, the analysis also indicates the level of transfer needed, and whether it is necessary to expand coverage to households of other groups or in other livelihood zones. This analysis is crucial in pre-empting and even preventing the need for humanitarian response.


Using the HEA framework in the design and implementation of social protection programmes helps in understanding the contexts in which people live and their specific vulnerabilities to common shocks. This is not usually considered in national poverty analyses. HEA is a costeffective and transparent targeting tool, and has been used to calculate appropriate cash transfer amounts at different times of the year. HEA can help to determine the combination and levels of cash and in-kind support required, and how to increase such support in the event of a shock. The framework can also be used to model the impact of different modalities, transfer sizes and programme durations. The knowledge and understanding of livelihood zones accumulated from HEA baseline work and outcome analyses, and the skilled pool of HEA practitioners and analysts that now exists within NGOs, government and universities, could potentially also be used to analyse the effectiveness of current programmes (cash transfers, insurance or livelihoods support) to achieve greater impact and help to lift people out of poverty.

Jessica Saulle is Humanitarian Food Security and Livelihoods Advisor at Save the Children. Nicola Hypher is Social Protection Advisor and Nick Martlew is Senior Humanitarian Advocacy Advisor