Conflict and an ensuing humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have led to substantial population displacement and threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions. In a situation where rising needs outstripped preliminary humanitarian responses and where safety net programmes that were purposed for shock-response have been curtailed or stopped functioning altogether, what are the limits to social protection in times of acute conflict?
Shock responsive social protection… but to conflict?
Over the past 20 years, social protection programmes have multiplied around the world, with millions of people now receiving regular and predictable social assistance. The effectiveness of these programmes in reaching and providing assistance in a timely manner and to the right people has stimulated interest in how social protection can be adapted to respond to shocks. The massive scaling up of social protection measures as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic shows the scope of shock responsive social protection to address both pre-existing vulnerabilities that are intensified by an event as well as new vulnerabilities that are precipitated by a shock.
Shock responsiveness assumes the basic building blocks of a developed social protection system are in place – including institutional and financial arrangements, administrative structures and staffing, delivery capacities and accountability mechanisms. Unsurprisingly, shock responsive social protection is an innovation that has been attempted in places where there is an existing infrastructure (often led by states) and a track record for provision along the delivery chain for social assistance. In most contexts of protracted conflict, these basic building blocks of social protection are not in place.
In fact, evidence of success of shock responsive systems have mostly been in response to climate events and other natural hazards. In conflict situations, often a patchwork of humanitarian and development assistance prevails – delivered by multiple agencies and organisations, with uneven and sometimes unpredictable levels of support. In these settings, the aim of many aid actors as well as some public authorities is to strengthen coordination while laying the groundwork (the seeds) for nascent social protection systems.
The case of Tigray
The current crisis in Tigray presents an unusual case. Before the conflict began, Tigray was one of the best performing regions in Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) – based on evaluations of the programme’s performance that we have been involved in for over a decade.
An estimated 1 million Tigrayans received monthly food or cash transfers, including many through an electronic payment system. PSNP public works represented a sustained investment in climate resilience in the drought-prone region. Complementary programme efforts focussed on strengthening livelihoods, through extension services, business and technical skills training, and workforce development and linkages to employment. All of this was highly coordinated and directed by the state at multiple levels of political administration, from the federal right down to the sub-district level.
Designed to address food security concerns in response to seasonal droughts, the PSNP (like most social protection programmes) was not set up to be responsive to a severe and unanticipated conflict shock. Instead, the expectation is that humanitarian assistance will fill the void left by the retreat (and possibly collapse) of pre-existing systems of social assistance to meet the deeper and wider needs of a conflict-affected population.
Yet, since the conflict in Tigray began on 4 November last year, a grave humanitarian crisis has erupted alongside the degradation and disruption of response capacities. While government efforts are supporting progress in food and nutrition responses, and health services have been restored in major cities, reports in recent weeks detail a picture of a humanitarian operation – although expanding – still struggling to catch up with needs on the ground.
In many areas, woreda (district) and tabiya (sub-district) personnel who were on the frontline of PSNP delivery were themselves displaced during the conflict. Until recently, outside of the regional capital, Mekelle (where banks reopened at the end of December), many government employees did not receive their salaries for months. Shops, which were used to provide cash payments to some PSNP beneficiaries, are shuttered (and many looted), as are banks. Even if an infrastructure for cash responses was still functioning, markets are not operating in most areas, with insecurity rampant as well as destroyed roads and bridges impeding access.
While agencies and governments around the world aim to fuse shock responsive elements to social protection programmes, the curtailment of the PSNP in Tigray stands as a cautionary tale. The impacts of acute conflict are important to understand because they point to vulnerabilities in systems of provisioning and provide insights into how the PSNP may be made more resilient in the face of future conflict. The continuity of benefits (a gold standard for social protection) is broken as payment systems are derailed. The provision of services collapses when ground-level implementers, such as agriculture extension and public health workers, are themselves displaced. Accessibility to operational areas – for assessment, delivering supplies and food, and monitoring – is obstructed by damage to roads and communications as well as the continuing threat of attacks on responders including food aid transporters.
The long-term impacts of the conflict
More worrying is the longer-term impacts of the conflict, which have for the time being dwarfed any contribution the PSNP has made over its 15 years of operation to promoting peoples’ food security, well-being and, ultimately, their resilience. At the beneficiary level, PSNP clients, and a much larger newly vulnerable population, have experienced abandoned harvests (compounded by the effects of a locust invasion), destroyed homes, and lost and stolen assets. Improvements in food security in Tigray in recent decades were steady and gradual, they did not happen suddenly.
Recovering from an acute shock, like the current conflict, could take years. At the level of programming and systems, the relationships and institutions underpinning an effective delivery chain have been harmed. Social assistance has been subsumed in the wider politics of the conflict. Trust in government is severely damaged and public authority will be contested, sometimes violently, for the foreseeable future.
Addressing the legacies of conflict will be the test of providing more effective social assistance in Tigray once the worst of the crisis has passed. A key question is how can the PSNP be more sensitive to and resilient in situations of acute conflict? And, what are the main constraints to a rapid re-start of the PSNP in the region (broken delivery systems or politics)? At the intersection of the PSNP and humanitarian responses and systems, what coordinated anticipatory actions can be taken to mitigate the worst effects of conflict as well as ensuring the continuity of social assistance?
Crucially, any ability to restart the PSNP within Tigray will depend on regional-level politics and a return to stability. Thus, leadership, political will and time are required at all levels to explore what is possible – not only in terms of immediate support but also an enduring recovery that incorporates conflict responsiveness within longer-term systems of social assistance.
This blog post was written as part of the Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research programme. BASIC Research aims to inform policy and programming on how to help poor and vulnerable people cope better with crises and meet their basic needs through more effective social assistance in contexts of recurrent shocks, climate crises, humanitarian crises, protracted conflict and forced displacement. Follow BASIC Research on LinkedIn for the latest updates on our publications and events.