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Opinion

From Covid-19 back to the SDGs: what role for social protection?

Published on 16 February 2022

Image of Stephen Devereux

Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

The restrictions imposed by governments to control the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years had a severe impact on incomes for millions of people and their need for social assistance.  During that time we learned three important lessons from governments’ social responses to Covid-19 across the world.

The first was the value of having comprehensive and well-functioning social protection programmes in place, so that such programmes could be mobilised to deliver rapid relief to millions of people who were prevented from earning a living for several months due to lockdowns in 2020-21.

Shock-responsive modalities included vertical expansion, meaning that existing beneficiaries of social protection received higher benefits for the duration of lockdowns, and horizontal expansion, where additional beneficiaries were registered temporarily on existing programmes. In contrast, countries with limited social protection programmes pre-Covid-19 struggled to mobilise an effective rapid response. Many low-income countries had to depend on assistance from international development agencies, as a kind of stopgap humanitarian relief.

Importance of efficient systems

A second lesson we learned is the importance of having efficient systems in place for managing social protection programmes, especially platforms for identifying, registering, and making payments to beneficiaries. In this regard, digitalised mechanisms such as computer-based beneficiary registries and ‘mobile money’ payment systems proved more effective than manual mechanisms that require face-to-face interactions between government officials and members of the public. This was especially under the rigid restrictions on mobility that were imposed during the pandemic, when most offices were closed and people were confined to their homes.

Gaps in social protection provision

The third important lesson is that Covid-19 exposed huge gaps in social protection provision across the world, even in high-income countries with well-developed and relatively generous programmes. The most significant gap is in terms of coverage. In most countries, vulnerable groups such as children, older persons, and persons with disability are reached with social assistance in the form of cash transfers or social grants. Working-age populations are covered by social insurance, but only if they have contracted jobs and are making contributions to social security funds that address employment-related contingencies, such as unemployment insurance or pensions after retirement.

Informal workers, self-employed workers, and employees of small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) have limited or no access to social insurance, and are not eligible for social assistance. So there is a ‘missing middle’ in most social protection systems which Covid-19 exposed, because this is precisely the group that was worst affected by lockdowns that prevented them from working and earning income.

Implications for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

What are the implications of these lessons for getting back on track towards full implementation of Agenda 2030? Clearly, social protection has a central role to play in achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably those concerned with reducing poverty, hunger, and inequality – but also in ensuring that no-one is left behind. In work for the African Union on the ‘Covid-19 Recovery Framework for Africa’, we identify a number of priorities for social protection.

Our high-level recommendations include the following:

  • In the short- to medium-term, we recommend (1) expanding the coverage of social protection programmes, notably to informal workers and other excluded groups; (2) increasing the benefits paid by social assistance programmes, while ensuring that payments are index-linked to annual inflation rates; and (3) enhancing the shock-responsiveness of social protection systems, for example by harmonising social assistance and humanitarian relief mechanisms, with the goal of ultimately achieving universal coverage of all poor and vulnerable populations.
  • In the medium- to long-term, we recommend strengthening national social protection systems, by (1) moving towards a rights-based approach by passing legislation that establishes eligibility criteria and accountability mechanisms in law; (2) transitioning towards the digitalisation of processes such as computer-based registration and management of beneficiaries, as well as mobile money payments where technology allows; and (3) establishing efficient institutions that deliver social assistance and social insurance benefits in full, on time and with dignity to all eligible citizens and residents.

Consolidate gains and resist austerity

An important principle underpinning these recommendations is to consolidate the gains made during Covid-19. There is a real risk that the expansion of social protection provisioning during the pandemic will be cut back if governments adopt post-pandemic austerity measures. This tendency must be resisted. Vulnerable groups that were temporarily incorporated into social protection systems – e.g. informal workers, domestic workers, farmers, seasonal workers, and migrants – must remain included.

Systems that were established or strengthened to deal with the unique challenges posed by Covid-19 must remain in place. Countries with minimal social protection should be supported to invest in establishing national social protection policies, programmes, and institutions, to provide adequate protection to their vulnerable citizens and residents, against chronic poverty and livelihood shocks.

Build resilience

The linkages between social assistance and social insurance should also be strengthened, with a focus on expanding coverage of unemployment insurance (especially to informal and self-employed workers) and health insurance. Social assistance itself must be re-visioned, to ensure that it does not simply increase the numbers of people depending on cash transfers from the state indefinitely, but builds the resilience of households and communities against shocks and stressors such as climate change and future pandemics.

If the lessons from Covid-19 are taken on board and internalised in policies adopted by governments and supported by the international community, the unprecedented shock created by the pandemic could instead become a valuable wake-up call. A wake-up call for additional investments in social protection that will ultimately contribute to achieving the 2030 Agenda, in full and perhaps even on time.

This opinion piece draws on a presentation by the author at a high-level panel discussion on emerging issues at the 60th Session of the UN Commission for Social Development, on 9 February 2022. It is based on the author’s inputs to the African Union’s ‘COVID-19 Recovery Framework for Africa’.

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