In a context of violent conflict, widespread suffering and displacement, social protection is still being delivered in Ukraine. To understand how social protection is being mobilised in this context, Bozena Sojka, with Paul Harvey and Rachel Slater from the Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) programme, have co-authored a briefing on existing social protection systems in Ukraine, and how these systems are affected by and responding to the current crisis.
The current social protection system in Ukraine
Spending on social protection made up 23 percent of total government expenditure in 2019, and pensions account for more than 50 percent of that. This is alongside additional contributory and grant-based programmes that tackle vulnerabilities, including income security in households with those unable to work or experiencing unemployment. Benefit payments are critical for many people in Ukraine and in 2017, the World Food Programme (WFP) found that 53 percent of households in Donestk and Luhansk relied on social benefits as a primary source of income.
The social protection system is led by the Ministry of Social Policy but since 2020, social services are devolved to city councils and municipalities, and payments are generally made through post offices and bank accounts. As part of its response to Covid-19 the Ukrainian government provided additional child and unemployment benefit payments and pension top-ups.
Since the start of conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, maintaining social protection operations has proved challenging. As international actors developed humanitarian responses to conflict in the east, theyfound that people in Russian-held areas were not receiving payments unless they could cross frontlines or get others to collect payments on their behalf.
In September 2021, Ukraine established a single list of all recipients and online applications became possible, enabling authorities to streamline payments, provide enhanced verification mechanism and tackle double payments. However, digital literacy remains a challenge in the Ukrainian context with many older people collecting benefits by hand from post offices and banks.
Rapidly adapting programmes and payment systems
Since the start of the current war in February 2022, the Ministry of Social Policy put in place mechanisms to ensure continued payments and established emergency payments to new recipients. Over a million people registered for these payments within two days of the invasion. On 10 March, the Ministry announced that since the war started they had been unable to pay out benefits in more than 60 cities and districts of 10 ‘oblast’ (administrative regions). It began adapting payment mechanism to make benefits more portable and allow recipients to collect payments at a wider range of locations and/or move to electronic transfers.
The Government, via the National Bank of Ukraine, also established a Ministry of Social Policy bank account designated for humanitarian purposes for charity contributions from Ukraine and abroad. The Ministry is channelling these funds to support citizens severely affected by the war with one-off financial aid and food, shelter, medicine, clothing and other staple goods for displaced people and Ukrainian citizens.
Although new emergency payments are important, maintaining existing benefits and enabling people to access them is critical. Individual experiences on the ground reflect delivery challenges. For example, Alla,* a 28-year-old female teacher, has lived in Poland since 2015 and is in contact with her retired parents in Uman, Ukraine. She reported that the monthly pension payments that her parents receive have not arrived yet to their accounts. Meanwhile, Ruslan, a 31-year-old thinktank employee in Warsaw reported that her Ukrainian mother had, received her pension without delay. However, Ruslan’s sister was not paid her usual Ukrainian disability allowance for February. We have heard countless other stories of Ukrainian people experiencing delays in their payments.
Where to from here?
While the briefing presents anecdotal examples of what is happening in Ukraine and how the Ukrainian Government is responding, a more systematic assessment is needed. Several questions need answering to support the continuity of Ukraine’s existing systems and align them with humanitarian responses to reach the most in need as rapidly as possible. These questions include:
- How resilient are existing delivery systems, and to what extent are people, particularly those who have been displaced, able to continue to access payments of existing benefits?
- How can transfers can be spent once received –are goods available, and what is happening to prices?
- Are people in parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine able to access support – either existing welfare entitlements, international humanitarian aid or support from Russian authorities? And what mechanisms are in place to protect banking systems and transfers made as deposits in occupied areas?
- To what extent are international actors engaging with the existing system, and how are efforts being coordinated?
- Is the conflict creating new types of vulnerability and inclusion challenges relating to gender and disability that need to be addressed in social protection and humanitarian responses?
- Finally, how are Ukrainians who have fled as refugees to other countries able to access their benefits, especially in split households where some members have fled to neighbouring countries, while others remain in Ukraine?
While we begin to see the answers to these questions unfold, it is evident that the Ukrainian crisis is not a question of either a humanitarian response or social protection. Delivering existing and new benefits through both systems is needed and it is important for emergency and long-term systems to interact and complement each other.
Aligning the wider response with a social protection system focused predominantly on tackling idiosyncratic and lifecycle shocks means that topping up support to existing beneficiaries will not be enough. Instead, broader support is needed to include people newly in need and it will be required on a large-scale– and this will only increase in the coming months. New social protection programmes will also be required, for example to tackle homelessness and the need for shelter and housing.
According to the Centre for Global Development and analysis from Thomas Byrnes, the level of needs will likely dwarf what can be provided through humanitarian funding. The humanitarian responses in Ukraine will need to coordinate with local authorities, and align with existing social protection mechanisms in the country.
For BASIC Research, these questions are key as the programme moves forward with similar research in Syria, Iraq and Ethiopia. Unravelling what will make social protection in Ukraine better equipped to directly respond to the crisis will matter most to humanitarian actors, but for governments and international development actors, understanding how to make social protection systems crisis-sensitive and crisis-resilient to continue delivering existing programmes, is just as important.
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*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the people mentioned