Valentina Barca

Social protection and COVID-19 – the emerging story of what worked where… and what it all means for future crises

Throughout the pandemic, social protection practitioners have been drawing on past experience and established ‘mantras’ to support governments and emergency actors to respond to the crisis. Valentina Barca, the Team Lead for the FCDO-GIZ-DFAT-funded SPACE service shares reflections on whether and how these mantras have been taken up.

COVID-19 caught us all by surprise. The social protection sector was no exception. Often dismissed before the pandemic (‘it is primarily for the poor and does not really concern us’), social protection became recognised as a crucial tool to cushion its socio-economic impacts (‘we are only a job-loss away from needing support’). As us geeks like to cite, “between March 2020 and May 2021 a total of 3,333 social protection measures had been planned or implemented in 222 countries”.

Knock yourself out here if you are hungry for more examples, trends and stats on the fundamental role that social insurance and social assistance have played in the crisis – here/here for two great syntheses of recent country case studies, or here for a webinar overview… But this blog is not about the stats. It’s about the ‘so what’. Was this surge so impressive? And by what standards anyway? How did countries’ responses differ and what does this all mean going forwards?

Answering these questions requires a rewind to March 2020, when we were all navigating in the dark. No-one knew exactly what was coming, but we had some ‘certainties’: we knew what we wanted to avoid and, broadly, where we wanted to get to – including some tactics that might help us get there (drawn from experience managing past shocks that were not radically different: the 2008 financial crisis, large-scale humanitarian emergencies, etc).

Credit: Sania Nishtar

So the question becomes: what were these ‘certainties’ (confession: my team internally called them mantras)? And how did the global social protection response fare against them?

Pakistan’s social protection response, photo courtesy of Sania Nishtar

Mantra 1. ENSURING EXISTING SOCIAL PROTECTION SYSTEMS DO NOT COLLAPSE WHEN PEOPLE NEED THEM THE MOST.

In a crisis, ‘everything needs to change for everything to stay the same’, asa fictional Italian aristocrat once said. Routine delivery risked enhancing contagion, routine capacity was swiftly overwhelmed. Scores of countries contagion-proofed their operations (Pakistan photos above speak more than 1000 words). Those that could strengthened digital platforms for registration and cashless digital payments (good overviews here, here), while clawing in staff from other sectors – just imagine that the UK redeployed over 10,000 staff to work on the Universal Credit programme. Where these small yet fundamental measures were not prioritised, things went rotten fast. In Uganda, the development of the COVID-19 standard operating procedures took almost three months and payments to existing recipients were paused between March and June 2020. Across the globe, many school feeding programmes temporarily collapsed, except where explicit measures were taken to drastically change the approach to delivery e.g. via take-home rations or cash-equivalent.

Mantra 2. TIMELINESS AND SIMPLICITY ABOVE EVERYTHING, GOOD ENOUGH OVER PERFECT

Humanitarians and Disaster Risk Managers teach us that shocks can turn into disasters if they are mismanaged, with success hinging on providing support swiftly, before people resort to negative coping strategies with destructive long-term consequences. They have been rightly pushing for ‘anticipatory action’ as the new frontier.

In this context, it is fundamental to remember that social protection is the most anticipatory of anticipatory actions. In countries where a high percentage of people were already supported prior to COVID-19, timeliness of response wasn’t even an issue – and study after study is now showing the importance of that ex-ante protection (e.g. globally here, Ethiopia here and here, Bolivia here, India here).

It is similarly important to reinforce the role of contributory social insurance, which is intrinsically ‘shock responsive’ and set up to support those in need, when in need, fast. We gave unemployment insurance and wage subsidies for granted in high income countries – but these were not an option for the vast majority of citizens in low income countries. This needs to change.

This leaves us with most countries scrambling to expand to large swathes of never-before-reached populations, informal workers at the forefront. Who performed best? Beyond political will and financing, those that could rely on strong existing delivery systems and capacity on one side, while keeping eligibility simple on the other. On average, evidence from 53 countries shows that government cash responses were paid 107 days after the first case reported in each country, with faster performances mediated by the factors in Figure 2 (e.g. using existing data, relying on e-payments, etc). No response was perfect, but there are lots of ‘good enough‘ examples – countries using simple criteria matched with digital registration (e.g. SMS, app, website) and trawling existing data  – see South Africa, Namibia, Togo, Pakistan, Thailand, Brazil and Peru, among others.

Mantra 3. THINKING COMPREHENSIVELY ACROSS ALL POPULATION GROUPS AFFECTED AND RISKS FACED, while ENSURING ADEQUACY OF SUPPORT

Did this happen? Not really, not enough. The truth is countries did what they could depending on what they had – targeting ‘design’ decisions were very strongly constrained by the pot of money available and what was feasible from a very practical perspective. While great efforts were made to swiftly consolidate evidence on who was most affected and how (e.g. here, here, here), and some countries embarked on important microsimulation exercises to understand how best to target social assistance, very few policy choices were fully data-informed, inclusive, comprehensive and adequate. Common targeting choices included previously uncovered urban areas, select categories of workers (e.g. tourism industry), or those who were anyway considered ‘poor and vulnerable’. Adequate transfer values, on the other hand, were often deprioritised vis-à-vis coverage targets – meaning people received little, late and not for long (3 months average duration). Once again, countries with the stronger underlying systems and capacity to make informed decisions while balancing complex trade-offs (not just programmes!) fared best.

Mantra 4. COORDINATION ACROSS SOCIAL PROTECTION AND HUMANITARIAN ACTORS WILL PLAY A CRITICAL ROLE IN THE RESPONSE  – FOCUSING ON JOINT OUTCOMES

This did happen, or at least, more than we have ever seen before. It would require a blog of its own, but for those who are interested, take a look at useful case studies here. There are of course areas of tension, with transfer values being the most contentious. More work needed on this, that is the main certainty.

Mantra 5. ACT SHORT-TERM, THINK LONG-TERM: USE THE RESPONSE TO THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE

A good one to close on, yet not enough evidence as yet. The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely exposed existing gaps and reinforced the mantra that strengthening systems now, while investing in preparedness, can help prevent future shocks from becoming crises. Yet the jury is still out on what that means for each and every country – and the audience poll from the ILO high level webinar launching their World Social Protection Report 2020-22 is not too encouraging.

This is not about tinkering at the margins with some business process engineering, it is about our view of society.

Audience poll, Social protection at the crossroads webinar

And here’s a video about the research

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