Geneva — The spread of state welfare for children around Africa has the potential to make a major dent in global poverty, the UN said on Wednesday.

Children account for the majority of those around the world in extreme poverty, living on less than $1.90  a day, with half of them in Africa, where social security systems are weak.

Globally, about a third of children are covered by social protection programmes, but this ranges from 88% in Europe and Central Asia to 16% in Africa, a new study by two UN bodies reads.

“The evidence shows clearly that social protection benefits, and cash transfers in particular, have a positive impact on poverty, food security, health and access to education — thus helping to ensure that children can realise their full potential, breaking the vicious cycle of poverty,” it reads.

Cash on its own  is not a magic bullet and  should be part of broader policies, supported by other benefits such as school meals,  reads the study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and children’s agency Unicef.

In sub-Saharan Africa, expected to have 90% of children in extreme poverty by 2030, 40 out of 48 countries have some form of cash transfer programme, but most pay too little and overall only 13.1% of children receive them.

“They aren’t all huge programmes but it’s been a real growth in the region and it’s moving very, very quickly,” David Stewart, Unicef’s head of child poverty, said.

Children up to the age of 14 make up 42.9% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, where public spending on child welfare amounts to only 0.7% of GDP, compared  with 2.5% in Europe, which has far fewer children.

Several African countries  are to discuss expanding their coverage at a conference in Geneva this week, Stewart said.

Isabel Ortiz, head of social protection at the ILO, said SA is making  enormous progress but still  does not offer universal coverage, while Ghana  is reallocating fuel subsidies towards child benefits and Zambia  is increasing tax on mining, showing some of the options if governments  are willing.

“Just saying we don’t have the budget is not good enough,” Ortiz said.

The ILO-Unicef study also contains a warning about the re-emergence of poverty in Europe, where some governments are cutting back child benefits due to austerity.