There has never been a more important moment to understand how to work with and help the most vulnerable people cope better with global shocks and crises. The global pandemic has shown how fragile our systems, communities and countries are – even in richer countries. The current status quo of social assistance in crises is deeply dysfunctional. Too many people in desperate need are getting no assistance and even for those that do get help, its delivery is too patchy to be relied upon.
Although social protection has the potential to address crises in different ways, the evidence base is thematically and geographically patchy. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office-funded (FCDO)-funded Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research programme aims to inform policy and programming on effective social assistance in situations of crisis, including those experiencing climate-related shocks and stressors, protracted conflict and forced displacement.
We are working across eight cross-cutting areas as we continue to refine our research agenda in the programme’s inception year:
Routine, effective and efficient delivery
Whilst the ‘shock-responsive social protection’ agenda broadly has gained traction and produced multiple initiatives on the ground, less is known about its success and applicability in conflict-affected situations. The agenda has largely focused on climate shocks or ‘natural’ disasters, so very little is known about how, for example, longstanding programmes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen have been maintained.
What is known about how social assistance is sustained in crisis, especially those of violent conflict and instability? Across this theme, we are looking at the effectiveness and efficiency of a humanitarian response routed through social assistance, and at the ways that government-led social assistance can be routinely and sustainably delivered.
Financing and value for money
Financing assistance in FCA is complex, with strong siloes or restrictions between humanitarian, climate and developmental assistance, and often constrained options to improve the financing for programmes and systems development. At the same time, the “value for money” and cost vs benefit of investing in long term approaches to risk reduction are increasingly well established. However, the right balance of actors, programmes, and financial tools in fragile and conflict situations remains a fragmented discussion, even though in practice these often co-exist and need to evolve together.
Given the extremely risky world in which we live where shocks are expected, and a long-term perspective is necessary we will ask better questions about the trade-offs involved. This approach is interrogating how risks, to households and to government systems, are ‘costed in’ to any assessment of options, the balance between programming objectives and financing imperatives, and how short-term pressures can be transparently weighed against long-term costs and benefits.
Risks, accountability and technology
Aid agencies, governments and donors are investing in new ways of managing data and processes such as registration in ways that open new possibilities for greater accountability and efficiency but also risk new exclusions and violations of the rights of vulnerable groups. The use of digital technologies and pressure to innovate can be in tension with the precautionary principle; the voices and interests of affected populations must remain central.
The overarching research question is whether the most vulnerable people in crisis situations benefit from these systems? This involves shifting the focus from ‘inclusion errors’ (those who are included/benefit by mistake) to those experiencing ‘exclusion errors’ (those who are excluded from benefits by system failings/errors); either because of the design of the system of because of structural inequalities in access to and use of digital technologies.
We need to improve our understanding of the nature, causes and multiple dimensions of climate vulnerability and resilience within FCA contexts; and to examine the role that social protection plays, and might play, in enhancing climate resilience within these settings. This will involve examining how climate resilience should be understood in FCA settings, in the context of climate change affecting the incidence of sudden shocks; leading to longer-term environmental changes, and also the fact that climate adaptation and mitigation actions may cause or contribute to economic and political changes.
What role does social protection play, or might play, in enhancing climate resilience within FCA? We are focusing particularly on how social protection affects, or might affect, the availability of those environmental and socio-economic resources which underpin climate resilience, in both the short- and long-term.
Politics, principles, and the role of the state
Places that are marked by violence, conflict and contested public authority, present difficulties in extending social protection coverage and strengthening national systems for social assistance. Other stakeholders such as non-state armed organisations, religious figures and networks, clans, and customary authorities, often have a significant influence on provisioning and mediating decisions on who is covered and who is not – even in cases of ‘formal’ social protection.
With a focus on the politics of social assistance in crises in terms of formal policies and approaches of governments and international actors) and from below (how social assistance is governed at the sub-national level), this theme is exploring the ways in which crisis-affected populations seek to navigate access to social assistance in contested spaces, and perceptions of different support that is provided.
The increasing duration of exile is a consequence of the intractability of the political crises that produce displacement in the first place. Over the long term, displacement itself inevitably increases the difficulty of resolving such crises, increasing multiple vulnerabilities, damaging individual livelihoods and interrupting education. Climate instability may exacerbate both the causes and the effects of displacement. Over time, displacement becomes a further factor in ongoing instability at national or regional level.
While political will has recently manifested in the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), it is a complex and dynamic political and conceptual landscape. The GCR emphasises self-sufficiency and sustainability of responses to displacement, which frames an important role for social assistance.
A variety of barriers means that existing programmes do not reach vulnerable and marginalised groups, while accessing social assistance can sometimes entail protection risks, such as violence, theft, bribery and intra-household and community tensions.
In this theme, we are focusing on what prevents social assistance from meeting the needs of excluded and vulnerable people during crises and what can be done to address this. Such intersecting vulnerabilities include those relating to gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics, caste, ethnicity, and statelessness. Transformative approaches to social protection that focus not just on assistance but on areas such as the right to work, freedom of movement and protection from violence are therefore especially needed, precisely when they are most difficult to put into place.
Livelihoods and transformation
While mainstream social protection sits in the realms of ensuring lives and livelihoods are supported in the event of predictable stresses (such as seasonality, loss of income from retirement, disability, or unemployment), disaster response (and the humanitarian system that accompanies it) is about planning for and managing the fallout of extreme events (most typically natural hazards) such as droughts, storms, and floods, turning into crises. Indeed, the new ‘hazard’ on the social protection block is conflict.
We need to understand if the standard framings and interventions of social protection are suited to contexts of conflict and violence. How do we provide social protection and rights in these places, how do we set up systems that can change the structures in which people can access livelihood opportunities? This theme is looking at the ways that the sectors have approached risk, shock and livelihood resilience and explore if there are avenues for bringing these distinct conceptualisations and associated programming into one framing.