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Five practical insights on linking humanitarian assistance and social protection

With COVID-19 increasing interest in the concept of linking humanitarian assistance with national social protection systems, Gabrielle Smith shares some practical tips for humanitarian practitioners on how this can be achieved. Gabrielle is an expert on the FCDO- and GDC-funded SPACE initiative which is supporting donors, governments and delivery partners to think through their options for cash responses to COVID-19.

12 October 2020 — By Gabrielle Smith

The past five years has seen interest grow in the concept of linking humanitarian assistance with national social protection systems. Across development and humanitarian spheres, it seems everyone’s talking about it – policy makers and practitioners; governmental and non-governmental actors; those working in long-term social protection; and those working in emergency and humanitarian response. It is highlighted in various international commitments.

Linking humanitarian assistance and social protection provides a practical step towards realising that most nebulous of goals – strengthening the ‘humanitarian-development nexus’.

The State of the World’s Cash 2002 report

As stated in the recent the CALP Network State of the World’s Cash report: linking offers “a specific entry point for crisis response linked to development programmes and systems, while addressing underlying poverty, building resilience and supporting localisation of humanitarian action”.  The arrival of COVID-19 has seen this interest peak further, and it is a central focus for our work as  SPACE. Below we present five key insights that SPACE has consolidated in response.

1. What is understood by ‘linking’ humanitarian assistance and social protection, in practical terms, is still evolving.

Experiences, pre-COVID and since, are highlighting that operationalising these linkages in practice needs careful consideration by humanitarian practitioners. It is becoming clearer that humanitarian action can be ‘linked’ with social protection in a variety of different ways. The World Bank’s Unbundled paper highlights that a spectrum, or continuum, of integration is possible. Activities of humanitarian actors can – and should – go beyond simply just supporting the expansion of specific national social protection programmes, which is where much policy discussion in this space has so far focused. As set out in the SPACE guidance note on linkages, designing and implementing complementary and mutually reinforcing assistance is critical. This might involve aligning and harmonising design of systems; improving coordination between systems; or sharing certain functions between humanitarian and social protection

This strategy decision matrix was developed as a technical tool used to structure an independent and unbiased analysis of COVID-19 response options.

programmes to enhance coverage, adequacy and comprehensiveness of the overall response.

Both sectors have comparative advantages, and these can be brought together in different ways, coordinating not only caseloads but also capacities, focusing on joint outcomes (see our SPACE Strategy Decision Matrix for an overview of these outcomes).

2. Systematically analyse and think through your options before taking decisions.

So how do you decide which specific strategy for linking humanitarian assistance and social protection is right for your context? Donors and implementers planning a humanitarian response linked with social protection cannot approach this in vague terms. At an early stage you must be clear on precisely what is being linked, for what purpose, and how this will be achieved.  This is highly context specific and must take account of the entry points, as well as possible barriers, at the level of policy, programme design and implementation. This requires a certain level of political economy, systems and programme analysis. A helpful framework to guide this analysis is to think through potential linkages across each of the three typical ‘Building Blocks’ of social protection and humanitarian systems (policy, programme design and administration/delivery), to understand where linkages may be most feasible and why. The building blocks are set out in the SPACE Delivery Systems Matrix, while the SPACE guidance note on linking humanitarian assistance and social protection sets out the key considerations for linking at each step, as well as suggested actions for humanitarian actors and practical examples.

3. Analyse the trade-offs inherent in each option on the table.

Being feasible is one thing, being appropriate (or most appropriate) is another. Linking humanitarian assistance and social protection should add value – it is not an end in itself. It should bring more benefits than alternative ways of assisting people affected by shocks, and this is not always guaranteed. While there may well be benefits to be gained, experience is showing that there will also be trade-offs to consider. These are well elaborated on in a forthcoming research report commissioned by FCDO, exploring the value for money of linking humanitarian assistance and social protection (Juillard et al. 2020). For example, using national social protection delivery systems might help to quickly and cheaply

SPACE Value for Money of Social Protection and Humanitarian Cash Transfers in the Context of COVID-19

achieve scale but might exclude some of the groups most affected by the crisis, or expose existing exclusion errors. Alternatively, there might be

longer term benefits where humanitarian actors contribute to social protection system strengthening but where speed of delivery in the short term is compromised. Our SPACE Note on Value for Money in the COVID-19 response summarises these further.

4. Identify and engage all actors strategically from the outset.

Linking humanitarian assistance and social protection effectively and sustainably requires the buy-in and support of a large number of different stakeholders: between national government departments responsible for social protection and disaster risk management; between government and its international partners; and between these international actors themselves. There is also a clear need to engage local organisations and networks representing a range of diverse groups (including women’s rights and persons with disability) in planning and response.

It’s important to understand that particular pathway to linking humanitarian assistance and social protection may create benefits for some stakeholders but constraints for others.

Humanitarian actors have tended to engage through a very project-centric

Linking CVA and Social Protection in the MENA Region

approach, whereas the aim, ultimately, must be to engage strategically

and develop a coherent and systemic approach.  This means finding ways to involve the range of stakeholders from the outset, take account of diverging perspectives and negotiate compromises. Donors can influence this process through funding key coordination functions that support a whole system approach.

5. Think carefully about what aspects of national social protection implementation systems it makes sense to use, as well as what the humanitarian sector could contribute in order to enhance national social protection provision.

As unpacked in the SPACE guidance note on linking humanitarian assistance and social protection and in the World Bank’s Unbundled report it built on, it may be better to leverage only certain parts of the social protection system (administrative processes, institutional capacities, or data) to deliver a humanitarian response. And on the flip side, humanitarian systems and capabilities can be used to fill gaps in, strengthen and support a social protection response – with a view to longer term system strengthening. The humanitarian sector has a wealth of expertise, systems and tools that can add value to, or fill gaps in, government social protection responses. Local organisations are also well-placed to deliver and fill these gaps in a coordinated way, and are often able to respond to the specific needs of those most vulnerable and at risk of the impacts of crises (women’s organisations, informal worker member-based organisations, disability organisations etc). On some government’s social protection responses to COVID-19, partners have been directly implementing systems for, or providing technical assistance on market analysis, accountability mechanisms, management information systems, payment systems, and monitoring.

Webinar: Unbundling the delivery chain: linkages between humanitarian cash transfers and social protection

For examples of how these insights are being applied in practice, check out the  SPACE guidance note. And you can watch a whole webinar on this topic here – as well as many more on the topic here. Happy watching!


The Social Protection Approaches to COVID-19: Expert Advice Helpline (SPACE) is implemented by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and German Development Cooperation (GDC) and funded by UK Aid and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The views expressed in this document are entirely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent FCDO or GDC views or policies.


Juillard, H., Smith, G., Maillard, C., Jourdain, J., Vogel, B., Shah, V. and Weiss, L. (2020). Cash assistance: how design influences value for money, Paris: KAC.