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What do we know about how social protection systems can respond to needs during a crisis?

24 May 2016
by Guest author

WHSGabrielle Smith, Oxford Policy Management

In his report to the UN World Humanitarian Summit taking place this week in Istanbul, UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon writes that during crises: “social protection mechanisms and infrastructure may be unavailable or overwhelmed by the volume of demand. Those displaced in camps often survive on inadequate humanitarian assistance”. Unfortunately, the frequency, severity and length of humanitarian crises has increased over recent years. We have also seen increased levels of forced displacement. The rising cost of international assistance is widening the gap between humanitarian needs and international resources, bringing questions about aid effectiveness and critical appraisals of the humanitarian system to the fore. There is a growing realisation of the need for new approaches to humanitarian assistance.

Shock-responsive social protection systems are one such approach. Interest has been growing amongst practitioners and policymakers in the potential for a system that allows irregular humanitarian needs to be built into and addressed as part of longer-term development programming, through longer-term predictable funding sources and with greater engagement of governments.  The most effective ways of developing and implementing such a system for different contexts, and the implications for the humanitarian sector and national governments, remain unclear.

We have therefore conducted a thorough literature review, commissioned by DFID, the UK Department for International Development, to improve understanding of the interaction between social protection, humanitarian and disaster risk management systems, and to identify ways in which long-term social protection can be effectively scaled up to provide support in humanitarian emergencies.

This literature review of over 400 documents (scientific and grey literature) has consolidated current thinking and emerging evidence. Evidence comes from several countries such as Brazil, Vietnam and Indonesia, where social protection schemes were scaled up to support households affected by the food, fuel and financial crisis, as well as national social protection programmes that were scaled up to respond to needs caused by disasters such as droughts and typhoons – including in Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi and the Philippines.

Social protection makes use of a number of different instruments: social transfers, subsidies, fee waivers, public works programmes, social insurance, active labour market policies and social care services. This review identifies the most natural overlap between social protection and humanitarian assistance as being social transfers provided as cash (and food). Cash assistance in emergencies is growing and cash transfers are a core building block of all emerging social protection systems. Emergency and social protection cash transfers have similar administration requirements, making transition from one to another relatively straightforward. The limited coverage of other policy instruments in low- and even middle-income countries limits their use as alternative responses to a shock. Key differences between emergency and social protection cash transfers, such as their objectives, underlying principles and assistance durations will, however, have a bearing on the ease and effectiveness with which social protection programmes can be scaled up to meet the needs of people affected by a crisis.

So far, government social transfer programmes have been scaled up during emergencies in three main ways. They have been expanded ‘vertically’ – increasing the benefit value or duration of assistance to existing beneficiaries – as well as ‘horizontally’, by adding new beneficiaries to an existing programme.  Vertical expansion has been easier to implement than horizontal expansion. In some cases, new social protection programmes have been introduced to meet needs that no existing programme could cater for. For an elaboration of these options and to learn more about a further two added by the research team, the concept note is available here.

The review finds clear evidence that scaling up national cash transfer programmes in emergencies can both improve the timeliness of assistance and provide cost efficiencies.

Some key challenges to scaling up social transfers identified by the literature include: Ensuring coverage of geographical areas that were not covered by the administrative system of the original long-term programme; how to avoid over-burdening the administrative capacity of existing staff and systems; ascertaining the best way to scale down again post-crisis; how to reach the worst affected groups using existing targeting mechanisms; and how to meet the needs of informal sector workers if they are excluded from social insurance and from most social assistance.

A number of important determinants of effectiveness emerge from the literature, including: links to an established early warning system, timely and accurate data on needs and vulnerability, well-developed systems for targeting, verification and disbursement of funds, institutional capacity to manage the increase, coordination through a single central agency, guaranteed financing to enable governments to invest and build systems and deliver a rapid response, and innovative partnership arrangements with public, private and non-state actors.

Useful links

lit reviewThe full literature review is available for download here from Oxford Policy Management’s website.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss this research with a member of the team, please contact Jenny Congrave at [email protected].

The OECD Development Centre’s work on social protection systems
The European Union Social Protection Systems Programme (EU-SPS)  is a new European Union action co-financed by the OECD and the Government of Finland. The OECD’s Development Centre and the Government of Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) manage its implementation. The EU-SPS supports low- and middle-income countries in building sustainable and inclusive social protection systems. The programme will be implemented from 2015 to 2018 in partnership with national and regional social protection authorities, think-tanks and expert institutions in ten countries.

OECD work on humanitarian assistance

The crisis and its aftermath: A stress test for societies and for social policies from Society at a Glance 2014: OECD Social Indicators

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