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Social Protection: new programming, new risks

COVID-19 is propelling humanitarian organisations responding in natural disaster and conflict environments into new types of programming with new risks.

Social protection programming has always been an outlier in most humanitarian programmes. It doesn’t fit neatly into the cluster system but neither is it wholly a developmental approach. If discussed at all in humanitarian response, it tends to form part of protection or early recovery work. Sometimes it is part of resilience planning in disaster risk reduction.

However, as both humanitarian and development organisations shift their programming to respond to COVID-19, social protection programming is about to take centre stage. The World Bank announced this week that it intends to deploy $160 billion in social protection programming over the next 15 months to help developing countries respond to COVID-19. Many other donors are redeploying their resources or asking organisations to incorporate social protection in their ongoing programming. 

What is social protection programming

The European Commission (ECHO) defines social protection as:

“a set of policies and action that enhance the capacity of all people, but notably poor and vulnerable groups, to escape from poverty (or avoid falling into poverty), and better manage risks and shocks. In crisis or shock situations, social protection interventions are primarily a means to helping immediate needs and reducing mortality and human suffering.”

Social protection programming is designed to reduce people’s poverty and exposure to risks and enable them to manage shocks that would otherwise result in social vulnerability – such as migration, child work, hunger or malnutrition. Examples of social protection programmes in the UK during COVID-19 are government sponsored furlough or universal income programmes. The main instrument of social protection programming is normally cash or cash transfer. Cash has widely been recognised in the sector as a more effective means programming than service delivery of food or supplies.

Programming Shifts

The need to integrate social protection into almost all programming globally will be immediate. Even typical interventions – like WASH and nutrition – will need to be reviewed through a social protection lens and shifted to prioritise social protection aims. NGOs and development actors will increasingly be involved social protection specific programming like cash transfer, micro-finance interventions, livelihood (income generation), protection, government (or donor) funded work projects, and acting as referral coordinators and pathways between basic service providers. Special focus will be required for those made more vulnerable by COVID-19 – the unemployed, elderly, disabled and sick. Because social protection (aka social safety nets) tends to be the domain of governments, refugees and IDPs will require additional focus as they not normally benefit from national social protection efforts.

Risks in social protection programming

Organisations will need to understand three key categories of risk when engaged in social protection programming. While these risk categories will not be unfamiliar to most organisations, they are not typically the focus of security risk assessments.

Safeguarding Risk

Our blog Error 404: Service Not Found – Safeguarding & COVID-19 paints a stark picture of the current safeguarding risks during COVID-19. The combination of an increase of accumulated safeguarding risks, lower (or no) organisational capacity to respond or support survivors along with the de-prioritisation of safeguarding in the name of addressing COVID-19 is a recipe for disaster. Understanding and addressing safeguarding risks proactively will require safeguarding risks to be mainstreamed with security in programme risk assessments.

Political Risk – State-centric

Many organisations focus wholly on physical security when fulfilling duty of care requirements for donors. However, the COVID-19 response is dominated by nation-states. Understanding and predicting risk in social protections programmes means having a better understanding of, and possibly closer working relationship with, governments. This could be especially uncomfortable for humanitarian NGOs who could see some activities breaching humanitarian principles.

Political Risk - ‘Emergency Measures’

Some governments are using the pandemic to enact sweeping powers. Emergency laws are offering governments wider remit and removing accountability. In Cambodia, for example, the national assembly has passed legislation that allows unlimited surveillance of telecommunications as well as the ability to restrict movement, assembly and seize private property. In Hungary, the Prime Minister has been given the means to rule indefinitely by decree. Ethiopia has declared a five-month state of emergency which allows the government to place restrictions no movement and the operational abilities of organisations.

While not all extensive powers will be used in draconian ways, a securitised and militarised environment is the backdrop against which coronavirus response is playing out. Governments describe themselves ‘at war’ against the virus. This could result in almost any individual or group being portrayed as an enemy ‘to the fight’ and justify their treatment outside legal norms. NGOs already have tenuous relationships with many state actors and the increasingly securitised environment of COVID-19 could exacerbate this.

Social protection programming provides one example of how, over the next year, organisations will need to be developing a more nuanced relationship with risk categories related to COVID-19 response. This will challenge our standardised risk models as well as our approach to risk in programming but the potential to achieve our aims in reaching the most vulnerable makes it worth it.


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