Adapting social protection in the wake of Covid-19

Published on 24 April 2020

Everywhere you look, and even if you didn’t realise it, countries are using social protection to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic on a massive scale. Whether it is huge unemployment support packages in the UK and France, new and adapted cash transfer, food voucher, and school feeding programmes, unemployment insurance or subsidised sick leave, all are examples of using and adapting social protection to address a shock affecting large numbers of vulnerable people simultaneously. This is, by definition, Shock Responsive Social Protection (SRSP), a topic that we have worked on extensively over recent years (see here, here, here and here). In this blog, we will explore how it relates to the next phase of Covid-19 responses.

What is Shock Responsive Social Protection?

SRSP has become a hot topic in certain development and humanitarian circles. It focuses on how to adapt social protection systems to respond to large scale shocks of different kinds, aligned and coordinated with humanitarian assistance . You could argue it has a genealogical link to the broader concept of Adaptive Social Protection, which proposed linking up the sectors of disaster risk management, climate change adaption and social protection to help build the resilience of the poorest. SRSP forms the latest attempt in a broad arc of thinking on how to better link humanitarian and development work in the context of increasing levels of vulnerability, displacement and natural hazards worldwide. In the last five years there has been a flurry of position papers, case studies, operational guidance and other resources that have looked at how social protection systems in different parts of the world can be adapted to respond to different types of shock (such as floods, droughts, typhoons, conflicts, and so forth). A varied body of experience draws lessons from countries as diverse as the Caribbean, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, the Philippines, the Sahel, Somalia, Turkey, and Yemen.

Some might argue that social protection has always been shock responsive, protecting people against the risks they face across the course of their lives. This is true, but provision of social protection in the face of massive, unanticipated shocks, is quite new.  Observing how social protection initiatives are being creatively tailored, scaled and modified for this current COVID crisis is a clear case of SRSP on a global scale.

The potential and limits of SRSP

So what can we say Covid-19 is revealing about SRSP? Well first off, it’s working – governments are proving they can act quickly and decisively at scale to modify their social protection programmes, or introduce new ones, to address the fall-out from Covid-19. Countries are already exchanging best practice with each other. Learning from this crisis, as well as the decisions, structures, programmes and partnerships put in place, will inform how SRSP could look in the future, and how it can respond to other shocks. Change is certainly needed given that humanitarian and social assistance provision in crises is deeply problematic, and the humanitarian system is struggling to keep up with levels of need that rise year on year.

At the same time, Covid-19 may also be revealing some of the limits of SRSP. In a certain sense, both the advice issued to citizens and the responses from governments appear geared towards the rich and well capacitated. This seems to be playing out in some of the above-mentioned examples. How, for instance, do fragile and low capacity countries respond through social protection systems when in many cases they cover a very small percentage of the population? This will take time to change, especially if the world heads into another global recession. How do governments enforce social-distancing measures with weak state infrastructure and minimal presence in rural areas? Vulnerable households themselves face an impossible choice – stay home in self-isolation and risk suffering or dying from hunger, a lost livelihood, or an underlying medical condition, or go out to earn a living and risk being infected, without much of a medical system to rely on. In these contexts, whilst some interesting examples of SRSP are coming to light, the larger burden will likely fall on conventional actors – the government, humanitarian partners, possibly the military, and most of all communities themselves – to manage the fall-out as best they can.

Moreover, shocks are often cyclical and compounding– meaning they have a habit of repeating themselves and building on top of each other. There is every chance that after diminishing in intensity, Covid-19 could have a second wave (due to relaxed restrictions, seasonality, low levels of immunity, etc.). We know that poor households are disproportionately affected by shocks, and the effects of Covid-19 will likely have ramifications for household and national economies, food security, intra-household gender dynamics and community cohesion far into the future. This is particularly true as other shocks will invariably hit – lean seasons, floods, typhoons, conflicts – forcing households and governments to make further difficult decisions and trade offs. Will SRSP systems be able to step up, expand and bear this burden over the longer term?

SRSP ‘mantras’

So what does this mean for how SRSP is approached, both now and in the future? A group of practitioners are working together at global level to advise countries on how to use social protection systems to respond to Covid-19. Here are their SRSP ‘mantras’:

  • First, build on what exists – use social protection systems and programmes where appropriate and feasible before creating new or parallel processes.
  • Second, share the burden – divide roles and responsibilities where social protection cannot engage, working across government ministries, humanitarian actors, donors and NGOs in an aligned way.
  • Third, be realistic – not every situation is suitable for a SRSP-type response. It is tempting if you’re holding a hammer to see everything as a nail, but humanitarians and social protection practitioners alike need to make clear-headed assessments as to whether their situation merits a SRSP response. These decisions are technical as well as political in nature.
  • Lastly, think beyond the immediate – as shocks and their effects have complex ramifications for the future, we need to have a longer-term view, to use this moment for learning and change, and for creating new partnerships that support the growth of social protection systems wherever possible.

Although it doesn’t feel like it now, we know Covid-19 will pass, but its effects will be deep and lasting. Done well, enhanced SRSP systems could be one positive legacy from this crisis.



The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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