Engaging with politics to improve social assistance in protracted crises

Published on 15 August 2022

Becky Carter

Research Officer

Jeremy Lind

Research Fellow

Annabel Fenton

Communications Coordinator

Effective social assistance in protracted crises is not only about technical capacities. Politics plays a key role – from the agendas of global actors operating at the interface of social protection and humanitarian assistance, to how (contested) governance at sub-national level and below shapes front-line delivery.

Community members at Gewane, Afar Regional State queue for drinking water through a water trucking system. Credits: ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Tesfaye (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

These issues were explored during the ‘politics’ themed session of a series of online discussions in June 2022, facilitated by the Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research programme and co-hosted by socialprotection.org. During these discussions, practitioners and researchers shared experiences, evidence and ideas about improving social assistance in protracted crises, with sessions on targeting, accountability and climate resilience as well as politics.

The discussion forum sparked lively commentary, including a few provocative suggestions. A common thread throughout was how global actors providing social protection and humanitarian assistance should engage with states in settings characterised by contested governance and conflict. Aid agencies and donors have committed to shift away from inefficient, weakly connected interventions. The aim is for more integrated humanitarian and development programming, which strengthens state-led social protection systems. This requires reflecting on how to uphold the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality as well as how to balance complex trade-offs when responding to “conflict dynamics and vulnerability of people in need”, as raised in the e-discussion.

The political economy of each context shapes engagement between international support and national authorities, and the discussion participants flagged how critical regular political and conflict analyses are to inform decisions on providing social assistance in crises. However, the 2022 OECD DAC Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus Interim Progress Review found that “conflict and political economy analysis are the least-used input by nexus actors to inform planning and programming” (while the most used input is analysis of humanitarian needs) (OECD, 2022).

Utilising this political economy perspective, the e-discussion delved deeper into issues concerning aid actors’ approaches to engaging with states, and local realities in social assistance delivery. A point was raised that assessments of existing national social protection systems should be augmented by looking at the dynamics of existing formal and informal support. As pointed out by one contributor, aid actors may not have “a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of provision and access, or the political sensitivities of formal and less-formal care regimes.  At an extreme, we have situations, such as Lebanon, where [social protection] provision through ‘formal public’ channels is dwarfed by provision through faith/political- affiliated channels and/or remittance flows, yet this is not explicitly recognised and factored into distribution and provision.”

A more fundamental question was also posed – of whether aid agencies’ current approaches to social assistance are set up in a way that enables sufficient engagement with uncertainties and local capacities at play in protracted crises. It was highlighted that centralised, bureaucratic and formal systems, as well as prevailing donor (risk-management) frameworks, may not always be the best fit to deal with more complex (uncertain) realities in protracted crises settings. Research by Caravani et al. (2021) noted how local actors – such as elders, women, and religious and youth leaders – get involved in negotiating daily uncertainties around the provision of social assistance, resulting in informal operational practices which deliver assistance reliably. These practices “often exist in tension with prevailing policy and institutional frameworks that assume stability, control, and the ability to manage risk through a functioning formal system led by governments and aid agencies” (Caravani et al., 2021: 2).

One example of informal operational practice is the Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP). Research by Lind et al. (2022: 279) found that when the PSNP expanded across the lowlands of pastoral/ agro-pastoral Afar and Somali Regions, formal systems to target assistance were “negotiated and reconfigured, in acceptable ways”, through local norms and concepts of “fairness” embedded in “clan-based social networks in the context of limited statehood.”

The BASIC Research programme will be investigating these dynamics, and the others raised in the online discussion. This will be explored through further global level review, as well as country-specific research. The full summary of the chat – and the individual comments provided – can be viewed online. While we won’t be continuously monitoring the forum, it is live, so feel free to keep adding to the discussion.  There will be further discussion later in the year and beyond on the topic of politics in social assistance in crises. In the meantime, we would be happy to hear from you if you are working on this topic.


This blog was originally published on socialprotection.org in the August 2022 Newsletter.


Supported by
UK Aid


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