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Plenary session 1: Programmes

Beyond individual programmes: Gender-transformative and adaptive social protection systems for building resilience

How can governments move from individual social protection programmes to adaptive, inclusive social protection systems which are equipped to get help to the people who need it – when they need it – and help to build resilience for the future? This was the subject of a plenary session on social protection programmes – the first ‘building block’ of adaptive social protection – on day one of the Global Forum on Adaptive Social Protection, organised by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the World Bank.

A key instrument for responding to shocks, but countries’ readiness varies widely 

Dr Michal Rutkowski, Global Director for Social Protection and Jobs at the World Bank, framed the key issues in his opening presentation. He described how social protection has emerged as a ‘frontline response’ for mitigating shocks and building resilience in the face of multiple crises. Between April 2020 and December 2022 alone, for example, the World Bank provided nearly US$14.6 billion in social protection financing to 61 countries for COVID-19 response measures. Since the pandemic, the trend in the number and severity of disasters has become even more pronounced, underscoring the need for adaptive systems.

Given the experiences of the past few years, are countries better prepared to manage shocks compared to 2020? The picture is mixed in terms of readiness, according to Michal Rutkowski, with no clear trend discernable when countries are grouped by region. There is, however, a solid group of countries that is at high risk of shock and has low social safety net coverage. ‘A lot needs to be done to improve shock responsiveness and to build genuine adaptive social protection systems,’ he said. 

Michal Rutkowski, World Bank
Michal Rutkowski, World Bank

The World Bank has identified five main challenges which countries need to tackle. The first is to make social protection coverage more inclusive, ensuring that women, girls and other population groups which are vulnerable in the face of shocks are protected. The second is to shift social protection systems in the direction of greater flexibility and responsiveness, allowing for dynamic adjustments as needs change. Third, countries need to strengthen integrated systems which enable the effective delivery of social protection services to the right people. Fourth, social protection systems must include productive programmes which link recipients to job opportunities – something that is particularly important in countries with large informal sectors. Last, but not least, is the challenge of creating the necessary fiscal space to finance adaptive social protection systems. 

He concluded by noting that adaptive social protection is a key element for inclusive recovery and for meeting the challenges which global trends are bringing our way. It has a role to play in the recovery of human capital losses, advancing gender equality, fostering inclusive growth and green jobs, and building resilience.

Social protection non-negotiables: Strong plans, solid coordination and collective accountability

In a panel discussion which followed, representatives from the governments of Egypt and Niger, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) of the United Kingdom, and the European Commission weighed in on these and other issues. The panel was moderated by Natalia Winder Rossi, the Director of Social Policy and Social Protection in the Programme Group at UNICEF.

The first part of the discussion looked at the political and institutional ‘plumbing’ that must underpin social protection systems. How should programmes be linked across different sectors and levels of society? And how can the contributions of different actors be leveraged to best effect?

There was broad agreement that effective social protection requires a strong national commitment and must be government-led. It benefits from a clear national strategy or plan which sets the direction, and from high-level coordination through a body with the mandate to align contributions from different ministries and actors. In both Egypt and Niger, such bodies are chaired by the Prime Minister. This helps to ensure a convergence of efforts across the portfolios of the involved line ministries – from health and education, to housing, transportation and agriculture – behind the ministries of social development and ministries of labour, which play the leading role in social protection. It also allows for the coordination of civil society and private sector contributions.

Nivine El-Kabbag, Minister of Social Solidarity, Egypt
Nivine El-Kabbag, Minister of Social Solidarity, Egypt

H.E. Nivine El-Kabbag, the Minister of Social Solidarity of Egypt, noted that institutional arrangements and the mechanics of linking programmes are in some respects easier to resolve than issues about the sharing of financial responsibilities. ‘Electronic networking between different systems and the national registry of citizens with their identification numbers – that is all agreed upon and interconnected,’ she said. Who pays for the services – decent housing, water connections, transportation for the elderly – is trickier. Many ministries complement the efforts of the Ministry of Social Solidarity when it comes to social protection, but they do not necessarily take social protection into their core responsibilities or their core funding. ‘This leaves the Ministry of Social Solidarity burdened and overloaded because you are at the forefront in terms of responsibility to citizens,’ said Nivine El-Kabbag.  

Moving beyond individual programmes to effective social protection systems therefore requires a broader lens which also takes into account funding solutions and collective accountability, she said.

No more missed opportunities: Putting women and girls at the center of social protection  

How can countries better realise the transformative potentials of social protection in terms of gender equality? At this first major international gathering following COVID-19, there was a sense of frustration that the pandemic ushered in important innovations in some areas of social protection, such as digital payments and use of novel data sources, but did not deliver more effectively for women and girls.

Alicia Herbert, FCDO
Alicia Herbert, FCDO

Alicia Herbert, the Director of Education, Gender and Equalities at FCDO, did not mince words: ‘Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by crises, but are least protected in terms of response. During COVID we saw girls being pulled out of school, we saw an increase in intimate partner violence, and we saw the burden of care falling disproportionately on women,’ she said.

She went on to note that of the more than 3000 social protection measures instituted during the pandemic, less than 20 per cent of them addressed issues of gender equality head-on. Although the pandemic was a missed opportunity in this respect, some important things were learned.

A key lesson is that we need to factor social protection in during times of non-crisis to ensure that in times of crisis you can get a better response – one that’s targeted to the needs of women and girls and one that is more inclusive, also of persons with disabilities and other groups.

Alicia Herbert

‘We are still lagging behind in terms of really gripping the transformational potential of social protection, what it can mean for women and girls,’ she continued. ‘I would say: “Grip this.” The evidence is strong, and we need to be putting it front and center in what we do.’ 

Social protection: Sufficiently adaptive for cushioning climate shocks and for accompanying Just Transitions

Throughout the Forum it was evident that the social protection and climate agendas are increasingly intertwined. The panelists took this up from different angles.

Ibrahim Boukary, Minister of Employment, Labor and Social Protection, Niger
Ibrahim Boukary, Minister of Employment, Labor and Social Protection, Niger

H.E Ibrahim Boukary, the Minister of Employment, Labor and Social Protection in Niger, spoke about the critical role social protection has to play in cushioning the effects of climate-related shocks, and specifically droughts and flooding. Because these are of a recurrent nature, the Government of Niger recognises the need to invest in strong foundational systems and coordination structures so that systems are ready to respond. It is also working to develop a single unified register of households which will help to identify the people who most require assistance during times of shock, and is looking at innovative approaches, such as early warning systems linked to pre-arranged financing. This would help to trigger responses at the right time.

We need to use science to anticipate the arrival of a flood or drought episode. We cannot wait for the shock to happen to mobilise funds. That is one of our problems – it’s only when the flood has happened that we mobilise our forces. This is what we need to prevent. We need a funding mechanism and we are working on this.

H.E Ibrahim Boukary

The World Bank Sahel Adaptive Social Protection Programme, to which BMZ contributes financing, is helping the Government of Niger to strengthen these and other systems which enable rapid responses, explained Ibrahim Boukary.

In her comments, Erica Gerretsen, Director for Human Development, Migration, Governance and Peace at the European Commission, also focused on the links between social protection and adaptation to climate change, stressing the need for social protection to be a core part of the ‘green, digital and social’ transitions which are underway to varying extents in countries around the world.

Erica Gerretson, Director for Human Development, Migration, Governance and Peace, European Commission
Erica Gerretson, European Commission

As labour markets change, and certain types of labour-intensive activities disappear and get replaced by others, people will require re-skilling and training. Some may be left out of jobs. ‘Social protection and social security systems need to accompany these populations,’ she said. 

Many countries are equipping themselves with Just Transition packages. When these are on the table, it’s really important for policymakers of the countries to ensure that the social protection dimension is well integrated.

Erica Gerretson

‘No one size fits all’: Social protection in contexts of conflict and displacement  

Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, conflict is the third major driver of the unprecedented increase in poverty and inequality. As conflicts both compound and become more protracted, the role of social protection becomes more urgent. Yet as Natalia Winder Rossi, the moderator of the panel, pointed out, there is much that is still not well understood in terms of how social protection can best address and work in contexts of conflict and displacement.

Nivine El-Kabbag, Egypt’s Minister of Social Solidarity, spoke about some of the challenges facing countries, like Egypt, which have large numbers of refugees living in host communities. The most fundamental one, in her view, is that there is no clear and accurate documentation of the number of refugees in the country.

How can you protect the unknown? You don’t know the scope. You have estimates and approximate numbers, you don’t have real numbers. Every single number is a household and a family that needs protection.

Nivine El-Kabbag

The lack of documentation overlaps with other challenges: refugees are effectively caught ‘between systems’ and are not necessarily covered by programmes which the host country’s government has in place for its own citizens. This leads, for example, to difficulties integrating into the education system and gaining access to health and family planning services. These challenges co-exist alongside specific problems, such as child labour, child marriage, intimate partner violence and sexual exploitation, and a high prevalence of injuries and disabilities – all risks which are heightened in situations of conflict and displacement.

In Niger, social protection programmes are playing an important role in supporting people who are internally displaced or who live in conflict-affected areas, explained Ibrahim Boukary. ‘This is not only about refugees, but also about our own people who are forcibly displaced and need access to basic services,’ he said. ‘We need to move towards productive inclusion of this vulnerable population. This is the best thing we can do to tackle poverty and the best response we could ever provide when it comes to security.’

Erica Gerretsen, of the European Commission, spoke about efforts to bring social protection, humanitarian and climate communities closer together in the context of the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. The European Union has worked for a long time in this ‘nexus’ with the aim of bringing different actors and tools to bear across a continuum, from providing basic services via humanitarian aid in fragile settings to implementing a more developmental approach and supporting governments in transition.  

We are trying to see how to build from short-term to long-term approaches without a break. The risk of the nexus is having humanitarians leaving and development actors or governments not being present immediately afterwards to take over.

Erica Gerretson

Providing adequate support across this continuum requires financial solutions. These should not be ‘false’ ones, such as subsidies which do not target the most needy, or regressive taxation, said Erica Gerretsen. Rather, they should be based on assessments of how budgets can best be used to address the needs of specific vulnerable populations. 

Three takeaways at the end of a far-reaching discussion

At the end of a far-reaching discussion, Natalia Winder Rossi offered three overarching observations. First, it is essential to invest in routine systems during times of stability and calm. These windows of opportunity must be used to design programmes and build systems which are inclusive, with a particular focus on women and girls.

Second, national governments must take center stage in terms of planning and steering social protection systems. However, for social protection to succeed at scale, a countrywide commitment is needed, as are the right financial and programmatic incentives to ‘make things happen.’ 

Third, social protection has a big role to play in the context of climate change, in terms of both response and resilience, but there is much that remains to be understood about how to best deploy social protection in situations of conflict and displacement. As climate-related migration increases, this question is becoming ever more urgent.

© GIZ/Steffen Kugler
© GIZ/Steffen Kugler
© GIZ/Steffen Kugler
© GIZ/Steffen Kugler
© GIZ/Steffen Kugler
© GIZ/Steffen Kugler
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