COP26: Let’s talk about social assistance in protracted crises

Published on 8 November 2021

Lars Otto Naess

Resource Politics and Environmental Change Cluster Lead

Carolina Szyp

Research Officer

If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it is that crises will hit the most vulnerable the hardest. This is no truer than in the context of climate change. As global leaders take part in the COP26 Global Climate Summit, finance, energy transitions, burden-sharing, and resilience are some of the issues vexing negotiators in the hope of moving from rhetoric to a global deal.

Unchecked, World Bank estimates suggest that climate change will push 132 million people into poverty over the next ten years, many of them in need of social assistance. In fact, 1 in 33 people worldwide need humanitarian assistance according to this year’s Global Humanitarian Overview. Increasingly erratic weather patterns and recurrent climatic shocks have led to prolonged and severe drought conditions and floods with devastating humanitarian consequences, such as displacement, destroyed infrastructure and land, with severe impacts on livelihoods.

Yet, often lost in the fray of debate are the specific challenges of addressing climate change in areas affected by long-running conflict and displacement, such as Yemen, Mali, Somalia and South Sudan. These are home to populations that are both difficult to reach by UN and global humanitarian agencies and are hardest hit by climate extremes.

What is the connection between humanitarian crises and climate change?

Many of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries also suffer from protracted humanitarian crises linked to conflict, displacement and state fragility. In Somalia, for example, more than 30 climate-related events, including droughts and floods, have hit the country since 1990 – a threefold increase compared to similar events between 1970 and 1990. Somalia has long struggled with the compounding challenges of conflict and climate shocks. Yet, the thrust of aid policy and programming is responding to short-term humanitarian needs. There are comparatively few dedicated measures to support longer-term climate resilience and adaptation.

Similarly, in many other protracted crisis settings around the world, communities face severe challenges to accessing basic services and humanitarian assistance, affecting their vulnerability and resilience in crisis after crisis. Existing research, policy and programming underlines the potential for social assistance to address resilience to shocks and reduce vulnerabilities. Much of this work focuses on responding to sudden shocks in more stable settings. But what about in protracted crises?

Three challenges for linking up social assistance to building climate resilience

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office-funded Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research programme highlights three challenges for policy and programming efforts that seek to link social assistance and climate resilience in protracted crisis settings.

  1. The ‘potential’ transformative capacity of social assistance. Much policy, research, and programming focus on the shorter-term benefits of social assistance to address individual and community vulnerabilities, specifically for anticipating and absorbing shocks. Governments of countries that experience protracted crises often have limited resources and/or political will to prioritise climate adaptation or resilience building. Moreover, donors and humanitarian agencies prioritise short-term interventions to respond to acute needs; thus, they struggle to integrate transformative climate action into their humanitarian programming.
  2. The challenge of avoiding maladaptation. There is increasing evidence that interventions aimed at vulnerability reduction or adaptation may have unintended negative consequences, either entrenching existing vulnerabilities or creating new ones. This is called maladaptation. Maladaptation may happen over time, i.e., that projects reduce vulnerability in the short term, but increase them in the long term, or across places and social groups, i.e., that interventions benefit some at the expense of other groups. For social assistance to support adaptation, therefore, it is important that they address the factors that drive vulnerability, which are often structural by nature.
  3. Constraints in the delivery chain of social assistance (e.g., outreach, registration, payment, case management). These are often related to capacity limitations in the integration of climate resilience into social assistance, for example in assessing drivers of vulnerability to climate risks, or in understanding and applying climate information. Those working in the climate field often come from a very different set of technical knowledge and skills and speak a different language from those in government departments responsible for delivering social transfers. They also are often housed in completely separate ministries and departments.

How can social assistance support climate resilience?

For immediate action, and not just commitment, we need to:

  1. Understand how social assistance can be designed and implemented to reduce risks of maladaptation in protracted crises, as decisions taken in the short-term will have implications for the prospects of longer-term transformative change. Any social assistance contributions towards transformation must be at their core sensitive to the drivers of conflict and, not only do no harm but also add to broader efforts at preventing and reducing conflict over the long-term.
  2. Further the knowledge on causes of climate-related vulnerability and unique delivery challenges in protracted crisis settings, such as level of needs, the nature of crisis, level of violence, strength of systems, dependence on aid, and stakeholder configuration. This will allow us to examine the potential for social assistance to enhance resilience of livelihoods in protracted crises.
  3. Strike the balance between addressing shorter and longer term needs that cover humanitarian, conflict, and climate vulnerabilities. Policy implementation, coordination (and even collaboration) and financing on the nexus of social assistance, humanitarian assistance and climate change is highly needed.

As negotiations get underway at COP26, outcomes for financing adaptation and resilience activities will potentially carry significant implications for social assistance in protracted crises. Because the most vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change and recurring climate shocks often overlap with those suffering the consequences of displacement and conflict in protracted crises, approaches will be successful only if they tackle both the immediate risks as well as supporting deeper transformation through addressing the drivers of vulnerability.

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