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Blog Post

Linking Social Protection and Humanitarian Cash

15 May 2020 — By Paul Harvey, Daniel Longhurst, Rachel Sabates-Wheeler and Rachel Slater

The case for social protection to help people cope with shocks has always been clear and never more obvious than during the current Covid-19 crisis. These issues are currently playing out in real time as governments, donors and aid agencies scramble to find ways to get more help to more people to cope with the economic consequences of illness and lockdown. As the virus starts to take hold in war zones, in refugee camps and in the world’s poorest countries, the limits of current social assistance and the critical role of international humanitarian organisations in places like the Central African Republic and Afghanistan will come to the fore.

Momentum has been growing around the idea of making social protection more shock responsive and more closely linked to humanitarian response efforts, and a rich body of experience is starting to grow from countries such as Turkey, Yemen, the Philippines, the Sahel and the Caribbean. Theoretical foundations have also developed with frameworks showing how social protection can respond better to shocks through vertical expansion – providing more help to people on existing schemes; horizontal expansion – help more people by expanding coverage; and, in other ways such as aligning support with systems that are already in place.

Why is linking hard?

The debate about linking humanitarian cash and voucher assistance initiatives and social protection programmes has a long history and shifting terminology – from ‘relief to development’, ‘the continuum’, ‘resilience’ and most recently ‘the nexus.’ Underpinning it all have been calls for stronger cooperation between humanitarian and development actors and disaster affected states and civil society.  A challenge for this debate has been the underlying assumption that more linkages are both a good thing and easy to achieve if only relief and development actors would talk more. But, if it is both good and easy, why it has been so difficult to make happen in practice? The literature has tended to overlook the fundamental differences in principle, approach and ways of working that have made success elusive.

At the heart of these differences are divergent ways of thinking about the role of the state. Social protection in development is all about international actors supporting states to provide assistance to their citizens as part of a social contract. Humanitarian action has positioned itself as independent from states and as a provider of last resort when state capacities are overwhelmed or when states are parties to conflicts. A better starting point for thinking about whether and how it is desirable to link social protection and humanitarian cash, is to think about what the differences mean for the right balance of development and humanitarian action in different places.

Beyond the technical

This challenge similarly applies to what is needed in terms of training and capacity development. This blog is based on a review for CaLP of existing training and associated gaps in efforts to link social protection and humanitarian cash. Covid-19 has underlined the need for this and the size of the task.

Training has usually been approached from a technical standpoint – training social protection actors to better factor in risk and humanitarian actors to link with longer term social assistance. The implicit theory of change is that if you give people the right technical knowledge and skills, they will be able to make social protection more shock responsive. This might well be useful, but it is insufficient unless it more explicitly confronts tension in approaches and engage with the politics of fragile and conflict affected places. Aid agencies need the skills to tackle key dilemmas such as:

  • Should social assistance in conflicts be neutral, impartial and independent? Can humanitarian actors maintain commitments to humanitarian principles whilst working with government run social assistance and should development actors, such as the World Bank adhere to humanitarian principles?
  • Is it possible to link social protection and humanitarian cash in places not controlled by governments? Would that imply international aid actors working with non-state armed groups and is that feasible given current anti-terrorism legislation?
  • In places like Jordan, Lebanon and Uganda how can aid agencies best persuade and support government to be willing to include refugees in national systems?

Tackling these issues isn’t a question of technical fixes. People cannot be trained to come up with the right answer but need to be equipped with the right ethical frameworks and analytical skills to make informed choices about how to engage. This is particularly relevant in the Covid-19 response. As the virus takes hold in Afghanistan, in refugee camps and in opposition-held areas of Syria, how will people be reached in those places?

Some key technical issues also present challenges. A pertinent one concerns the right mix of shock responsive social protection and separate emergency management institutions. Would some states be better advised to keep social assistance simple and focused just on the long-term and have separate emergency management systems?

The Covid-19 crisis is making clear the fundamental responsibility of governments to respond on a national scale. CaLP and others can play an important role in enabling the training, mentoring, debate and coordination that will be needed as development and humanitarian agencies try to step up to the task.

Photo credit: Enayatullah Azad/NRC