Why are social protection policies often missing in conflicts?

Published on 1 July 2021

As part of the inception year of the Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research programme, we’ve been undertaking a series of reviews of key themes. Within this analysis, one of the things we’ve been doing is looking at the social protection policies of governments in places affected by conflict and fragility to see how they address humanitarian crises.

Where is social protection?

You’d hope social protection would be pretty front and centre to countries at war where humanitarian crises are leading to massive suffering, threats of famine or where parts of the population are beyond the reach of government. Indeed, social protection is meant to be about helping the most vulnerable in society cope with shocks.

But what we found is that the government social protection policies in conflict-affected countries often have little mention of the fact that there is war going on. And aid agency and donor programmes and strategies for moves toward social protection gloss over the challenges of conflict.

Whilst some policies did have some mention of conflict and the role of humanitarian aid, it is the level of disconnection that is most striking. Both current conflicts and the legacies of previous conflicts are often ignored or downplayed. The presence of non-state armed groups, the fact that governments do not control all their territory and people that are beyond the reach of government-led assistance are little mentioned. In policies written in 2016 for Ethiopia, Mozambique and Nigeria and Myanmar (2014) conflict or armed violence do not get a single mention.

Understanding policy processes

More analysis of policy processes in particular places would be needed to start to unpick why conflict features in some policies and not others. It would be useful to know more about how policies were developed and who they were written by. For instance, does conflict blindness in some policies reflect policies largely written by international social protection consultants with limited experience with conflict and fragility or a government reluctance to acknowledge internal conflicts due to sovereignty concerns? More research into the specifics of policy processes in fragile and conflict-affected countries building on work by Sam Hickey and colleagues in eastern and southern Africa is needed to answer the question.

The dynamics and types of conflict are relevant to whether and how conflict is addressed within policies. In some countries such as Jordan, the people most affected by conflict and crisis are not considered citizens (Syrian refugees) and so are deliberately excluded from a national social protection policy focussed on citizens.

There are also questions over the extent to which governments are willing to publicly acknowledge the facts of internal conflicts in official policies. The current conflict in Tigray for example is officially labelled as a ‘law enforcement’ operation by the Government of Ethiopia and the conflict in north-east Nigeria is described as anti-terrorism with a reluctance to acknowledge the presence of citizens in areas controlled by non-state armed groups. Government’s concerns about sovereignty and a reluctance to be labelled as fragile, conflict-affected or in crisis mitigate against the clear analysis of the challenges of conflict in official policies.

Conflict blindness

This means that social protection policy discourses are often characterised by a large degree of conflict blindness; ignoring why humanitarian aid was needed in the first place and, why in many places, it has been needed for decades. Conflict blindness is also often evident in approaches to resilience and graduation. Strategies assume that packages of support to livelihoods will enable people to graduate from assistance programmes but ignore the cycles of violence and displacement that make graduation unlikely.

The problem with this failure to even acknowledge the real challenges of social protection in places affected by conflict is that policies start reading like fantasy documents that bear little relation to what is actually happening. As Devereux finds there has been a huge explosion of social protection policies in African countries over the last ten years but these are often written by international consultants and driven by western agencies and donors with little real traction in national governments.

There is a strong element of resistance and scepticism on the part of crisis-affected governments around the strong donor and aid agency policy narrative pushing more investment in social protection. Governments clearly remain to be fully convinced that concerns around dependency are being addressed and that investing their own resources in long-term social protection is affordable given competing priorities.

Saying one thing and doing another

But it’s not just conflict-affected governments that say one thing but do another. Donor governments and aid agencies are theoretically committed to national ownership and strengthening local capacities to deliver social protection, but in practice mostly continue to fund international organisations to deliver assistance through humanitarian budgets. Donor diligence, reporting and counter-terrorism requirements, driven by domestic politics are often pushing in different directions from policy rhetoric and commitments to greater national ownership and support of local actors. The policies of aid agencies and donors to often assume an unproblematic, technical challenge of linking humanitarian cash and social protection in crises and gloss over the political challenges and constraints facing donor governments.

The result is a series of cognitive disconnects. Conflict-affected governments pay lip service to being committed to social protection but aren’t convinced and don’t put any domestic resources behind it. Donor governments make rhetorical commitments to localisation but don’t show much evidence of changing how they fund.

Why this matters for the further introduction and extension of social assistance in crises is because there is a risk that the policies of donors and aid agencies are pushing an approach that is poorly rooted in the national political contexts of conflict-affected countries, and hence likely to fail. But more fundamentally, it matters because it leaves populations who need social protection most, beyond the reach of any help. As is now the case in Tigray and north-east Nigeria or reliant on humanitarian assistance with all its problems of patchy coverage, donor fatigue in long-running crises and unreliability from short-term funding cycles.

We’ll be trying to better understand these challenges in BASIC research. We are focusing on how efforts to support social assistance in crises could be less conflict blind and what that would mean for processes of analysis, programme design and engagement with the political challenges of assistance. All this in balance with the appropriate mix of development and humanitarian tools, approaches, capacities and financing.

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