Spotlight – Social protection as an instrument for emergency contexts
Interview with European Commission Head of Unit 'Gender Equality, Human Rights and Democratic Governance', Jean-Louis Ville.
How is social protection used to help countries build resilience and respond to emergencies?
Social protection is designed to help all people, but foremost the most vulnerable, in meeting their basic needs across the whole lifecycle, through the provision of basic income and ensuring access to healthcare and social services. While it is not a new concept, social protection systems are becoming increasingly recognised as an effective tool to build a country’s resilience and capacity to respond to crisis.
By being part of a comprehensive framework, and as far as possible aligned with government strategies, social protection not only addresses poverty and inequalities, but also helps manage disasters in a more predictable and sustainable way. In situations of extreme fragility and protracted crises, it is more effective to move chronic humanitarian caseloads into social protection systems.
In addition, social protection is proving to be an essential tool in providing support to victims of forced displacement. As part of a wider social protection approach, multipurpose social transfers have quickly become a central pillar of shock responses. Such programmes often provide cash transfers for at risk or affected populations to meet their basic needs, to support the creation and continuous execution of micro-economic activities and thus to contribute to resilience and local economic growth.
Finally, a social protection system can act as a preparedness mechanism, ready to be activated in shock situations. For example, a country affected by recurring droughts can target resources that were previously accumulated in a contingency fund, for at risk or affected populations. This will save lives, prevent human suffering and help a society recover much faster.
Can you tell us about the EU’s current policies and activities in this area?
The EU works to guarantee that everyone has a basic level of social protection, as a right, which ensures basic income security and access to essential and adequate healthcare and social services, throughout the lifecycle.
The European Commission’s development and humanitarian arms are coordinating closely to ensure social protection is used as an effective tool in contexts of shocks and fragility to build resilience and to establish better response mechanisms.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the recently adopted new European Consensus on Development both reconfirm the relevance of social protection as a means of addressing poverty and inequality, which includes crisis contexts. At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, the EU and its international partners made a commitment "to increase social protection programmes and strengthen national and local systems and coping mechanisms in order to build resilience in fragile contexts".
These commitments are being translated into action with EU support to crisis-affected populations. For instance, nearly 11.5 million food-insecure people received assistance through social transfers, between 2013 and 2016.
In Ethiopia the EU has supported the creation of a scalable rural safety net for food-insecure people and in Turkey the EU currently supports the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN), a single-card social assistance scheme to allow 1 million refugees cover their basic daily needs.
The EU recently co-hosted a major international conference in Brussels on 'Social Protection in Contexts of Fragility and Forced Displacement'. The conference gathered stakeholders to discuss various practices and lessons learned and identified promising approaches on how social protection can be set up and further improved in such contexts.
What are the key challenges for ensuring the effectiveness of social protection in emergency contexts?
I can sum up the key challenges with 3 Cs –coverage, capacity, and coordination.
While there is widespread social protection coverage in OECD countries, coverage in developing countries, especially the least developed, is extremely low. This is despite an increasing number of low and middle-income countries, putting various social protection programmes in place, over the last two decades.
For example, the coverage in sub-Saharan Africa may be as low as 1 % of the population. Therefore, unless coverage increases, social protection will remain out of reach, especially to those most in need. In addition, if coverage is to be effective, the transfer volume should be adequate and services, to which access is offered, must be of a good standard.
The stark reality is that many countries do not have the required capacities to respond to serious or protracted crises, when institutions and resources can become overwhelmed. Therefore, it is critical to invest in a country’s capacity to build up and run a social protection system before, during and after it is hit by a shock, in order for such measures to be sustainable in the long run and to reach their potential in building resilience and responding to a shock.
A key requirement for the expansion of coverage and the strengthening of capacities is the availability of resources. More and more people are being affected by emergencies, year on year. As the effects of climate change increase, emergencies resulting from environmental causes are becoming more prevalent. In total, 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes and 130 million people are relying on humanitarian aid.
Overall, the scaling-up of social protection is absolutely necessary and seems to be affordable, but more Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) is required to support start-up investments and to develop capacities. For eventual financial sustainability, there is a need to identify, prepare for and ultimately realise a suitable balance between ODA and domestic funding and between budget-financed and contribution-based social protection programmes.
This brings me to the need for more coordination and coherence between development and humanitarian actors. While the support to national social protection systems has traditionally fallen under the remit of development cooperation, the humanitarian community can play an important role in giving these efforts a new impetus concerning the operational dimension in jointly implementing both our humanitarian and development policies.
Finally, social protection systems can play a pivotal role across the four stages of the emergency to development cycle: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Therefore, improved coordination between humanitarian and development actors and actions can unleash synergies and strengthen the response to address the increasing needs of disaster-affected populations.
Infographic - social protection in emergency contexts