The concept and practice of Social Protection as a tool and instrument for poverty reduction, economic growth, and the humanitarian response have rapidly gained global popularity within the last decade with many developing countries slowly embracing social assistance as a strategy for reducing vulnerability among their populations. Conceivably, there has been a significant increase in government spending and investment in social protection programs which in turn has led to notable positive effects in socio-economic development and livelihood improvement for select beneficiary communities. This is not to say that developing countries have allocated sufficient resources towards financing social protection programs, but that they have, for the most part, demonstrated the political goodwill to progressively increase allocations and capacities towards expanding these programs (mostly with the support of development partners).
One of the main objectives of Social Protection is to cushion the poor and vulnerable households from the effects of emergencies — which disrupt their livelihoods and deplete their productive assets — subsequently preventing such households from falling deeper into poverty. To achieve this, regular social transfer programs need to be designed to expand and contract, either by increasing the caseloads or adjusting the transfer value in response to incidences of emergency. Such scale-ups often purpose to; provide a fast and effective response to large proportions of the population during extreme drought and other crisis events such as conflict or flooding (humanitarian response), or to support the resilience of poor and vulnerable populations in response to regular fluctuations of climate (resilience building).
Local Economy-Wide Impact Evaluation (LEWIE) studies conducted in Kenya and Ethiopia, reveal that a typical drought has significant negative impacts on households, and these negative impacts are magnified as the repercussions transmitted throughout the local economy. However, just as local economic linkages magnify the negative impacts of severe and extreme drought, they also magnify the positive impacts of social assistance provided in the response. By providing partial income insurance for beneficiaries, the emergency cash transfers provide insurance to the economies of which they are part, dampening the negative impact of drought on total local income by somewhere between 11% and 3%. This ‘local economy insurance’ impact, in certain instances, represents 2.03 times the cost of the emergency Cash Transfers and appears to most benefit the poorest recipients.
The desire to adopt social protection programs to respond to shocks may take five different options. These forms include; Increasing the value or duration of benefits for existing beneficiaries (Vertical Scalability), Increasing the number of recipients in an existing social protection program (Horizontal Scalability), Making small adjustments to the design of routine social protection interventions, Using elements of an existing social protection system while delivering a separate emergency response, or aligning social protection and/or humanitarian interventions with one another. There is little documented evidence on the options (or combination of options) that would work best in what context — but evidence indicates that effective scale-up requires adequate policies, financing, administrative capacity, and dependable infrastructure for the delivery and monitoring of transfers.
In my interactions with Social Protection programs in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Program (HSNP), and Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), probably provide the most significant evidence base on the practice of scalability from which further insights can be generated. These programs have very well-established scalability frameworks that define the standard procedures for mostly horizontal expansion but in certain instances vertical expansion. The framework prescribes when to scale up, how to target for scale-up, how to arrive at transfer values during scale-ups, how to monitor the scale-up, and even outlines financing mechanisms for scale-up. The challenges of implementing such frameworks are a reality for which the sector must constantly seek solutions.
These emergency payment models, as they stand, only provide a fast and effective response to large proportions of the population during severe drought, conflict, and other crisis events, but there is little evidence on the extent to which they build household resilience — or whether the values and timing of transfers are adequate in supporting beneficiaries to build sustainable livelihoods. Emergency payments are useful and timely in supporting basic consumption but cannot by themselves change underlying labor market conditions or prevent asset depletion. Social protection programs thus need to explore ways in which social cash transfers can support households with productive investments — which speaks to the fundamental debate around the intersection between social transfers as a humanitarian intervention and social transfers as a livelihoods intervention and reaffirms the need to integrate short term and long term interventions in designing social protection programs to be shocked responsive.
There have been notable efforts in many countries to strengthen the Social Protection systems like those of Targeting, Grievances and Complaints Mechanism, policy frameworks, Information Management, financing, and even for graduation. However, it remains unclear how well these micro-systems are prepared (beyond the regular safety net programs) to absorb additional caseloads in the event of shocks.
In trying to establish what an ideal shock responsive Social Protection programme need to look like, and in understanding the circumstances under which Shock Responsive Social transfers would be a useful complement or substitute for alternative forms of assistance, it would be necessary to equally examine the factors that enable social protection systems to be responsive to shocks and to deliver effective shock response. In doing so, the fundamental questions that need to be asked include whether the transfers would meet the immediate need of the populations, the adequacy of coverage, timeliness, predictability, appropriateness of delivery systems, and cost. In addition, governments and development partners must continuously debate and understand the adaptions or trade-offs required to make social protection systems and programs scalable in the incident of an emergency.
But even as we do so, the sector still needs to gather evidence on the potential of alternative approaches to shock response, such as social insurance, social care services, and subsidies — not just social transfers.