Social Protection Interventions as Medium- and Long-Term Responses to the Pandemic

Majority of social protection measures in Southeast Asia are in the form of social assistance, such as cash transfers and distribution of relief goods. Photo credit: ADB.

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Invest in preparedness and establish a shock-responsive social protection system to weather future shocks and reap dividends from resilience.


The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic presented governments around the world with a unique set of challenges. The pandemic is a covariate shock unlike anything experienced in recent decades. The impact was extremely swift. There were rapid declines in both supply and demand, affecting extremely high percentages of countries’ populations. Mechanisms to reduce physical contact and contagion disrupted service delivery systems. The dimensions of impact include health (e.g., increased mortality and morbidity), economic (e.g., livelihood loss or reduced earnings, supply shortages), and social (e.g., negative coping mechanisms, disruptions to education and health services).

As of July 2020, 200 countries and territories have planned or put in place over a thousand social protection measures in response to COVID-19.[1] These include social assistance (noncontributory measures, such as cash transfers), social insurance (e.g., unemployment benefits, paid sick leave) and labor market programs (including wage subsidies).

Most, but not all, countries in Southeast Asia and the People’s Republic of China have introduced social protection measures across each of these three categories. The majority are social assistance measures, particularly distribution of cash or in-kind transfers.[2]

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also taking a regional approach in protecting vulnerable groups and enhancing household resilience. Recent international commitments include the Declaration of the Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19[3] and the Joint Statement of the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Social Welfare and Development on Mitigating Impacts of COVID-19 on Vulnerable Groups in ASEAN.[4]

In East Asia and the Pacific region, social assistance is estimated to represent around 57%, on par with global averages.

In comparison, social insurance responses are more prominent in North America and Europe and Central Asia, reflecting greater investments in the formalization of social protection over many years.

A United Nations report provides more recent details on social protection responses in Asia and the Pacific.  

The ability of countries to provide social protection to their populations are largely determined by the strength of their social protection systems before COVID-19. This policy brief looks at how countries can adapt and ensure the sustainability of these systems during and beyond the pandemic. It is based on presentations made by the Social Protection Approaches to COVID-19 Expert (SPACE) team at the Policy Actions for COVID-19 Response Dialogues organized by the Asian Development Bank. Funded by Germany and the United Kingdom, SPACE consolidates and shares best practices and learning on COVID-19 responses from across the globe.

Policy Design

Policy measures to ensure the resilience and adaptiveness of social protection systems are important in a crisis

It is critical for governments to first ensure the resilience of their social protection systems or programs. This means maintaining routine and effective social protection delivery during the pandemic and preventing the collapse of existing measures in the face of the shock.

Ensuring the resilience of social protection is an active policy choice; it does not necessarily mean maintaining the status quo. The capacity requirements of enforcing conditions are high, and numerous countries have shifted to unconditional transfers combined with intensified messaging and behavioural change communication (which have also shown in the past to be very effective in achieving desired outcomes when accompanying unconditional cash transfers).

Figure 1: Framing the Policy Dimensions of Shock-Responsive Social Protection

Source: V. Barca et al, 2020.

Secondly, it is also fundamental to adapt social protection to cover the changes in context and needs of COVID-19. Adaptation can be through existing or new programs and can be conceptualized as addressing one or more of the following three dimensions (see also Figure 1):

  • Adequacy—the extent to which financial protection adequately addresses risks faced by vulnerable populations (vertical expansions). Policy options to address COVID-19 needs include (i) providing a higher level of transfer than exists in routine social assistance programs, (ii) bringing forward future payments, and (iii) waiving waiting periods.
  • Coverage—the extent to which social protection measures cover the affected population (horizontal expansions). COVID-19 affects a high percentage of the population. Moreover, a large proportion of them may live in different geographic areas and have different characteristics (e.g., informal workers) from the “usual” social protection beneficiaries. (The section below elaborates on various options to rapidly expand social assistance caseloads in response to COVID-19.)
  • Comprehensiveness—the extent to which all risks are addressed. Given the types of needs arising from COVID-19, policymakers can support different multidimensional needs by layering or linking additional measures (e.g., to meet health needs, behavioral change objectives, psychosocial support or protection needs).
Policy Implementation

Implementing policy decisions to rapidly scale up social assistance in response to COVID-19

One of the most challenging policy decisions to implement is the expansion of social assistance in response to COVID-19 via new or existing programs. A central question facing government is how those caseloads can most effectively be targeted, registered, enrolled, and paid.

For adding new caseloads, most countries already have something that can be built on for swift coverage. These include:

  • an existing database, such as a social registry, that may contain data on potential and past beneficiaries;
  • an existing information system linked to that database, potentially with some interoperability or data sharing with other government databases;
  • an online form or system for data collection; and
  • existing capacity at the local level and tried and tested methods for registration.

Having assessed what existing sources or systems can be leveraged, there are several key options to rapidly register and enroll new caseloads.  

  • Using existing data from the social protection sector in creative ways for emergency expansion/payments via a new or existing program;
  • Using existing data sources beyond the social protection sector in creative ways for emergency registration (e.g., civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS), national identification data);
  • On-demand emergency registration via digital “windows” and helplines;
  • On-demand emergency registration via permanent local offices/capacity; and
  • Ongoing or periodic active outreach.

Identifying which of these options can be leveraged, and starting with the “easier” approaches, will help to ensure timeliness for certain caseloads. Many options are complementary; it is often not an issue of either/or. Implementation can then move to more complex solutions to cover the gaps, potentially in coordination with humanitarian and other non-state actors. Informal workers are particularly challenging to register, but there are opportunities for reaching out to this group.  

Whichever option or combination of options is implemented, it is important to ensure adherence to the following dimensions:

  • Use simplified forms, eligibility criteria and documentation requirements, and simplified authentication/identification processes, ideally leveraging national identification and CRVS systems where possible.
  • Introduce COVID-19 contagion-control measures, which may be carried out with the guidance of organizations, such as CaLP and HelpAge International.
  • Ensure accessibility for vulnerable groups, particularly for registrations using on-demand approaches or those which draw on nongovernment sources (e.g., mobile money).   
  • Responsible use of data at all stages of the chain is required to address the risks of COVID-19 being used to roll out technological surveillance and control. There is a range of approaches to ensure respect for data protection and privacy, among others.

There are various mechanisms to transfer payments to new beneficiaries. Two of the most common options are using bank accounts or mobile money. However, there are beneficiaries who do not have accounts, but some innovative approaches are emerging to address this.


The extent to which social protection systems were prepared for the scope and scale of COVID-19 is highly variable

While the sheer number of social protection responses by governments appears impressive, these macro-level figures mask an array of challenges on the ground in many countries. SPACE has been analyzing COVID-19 response options using a number of technical tools,  including a Strategy Decision Matrix and a Delivery System Decision Matrix. There is significant heterogeneity in the extent of achievement by governments against various dimensions, including the following:

  • Coverage of affected populations has been varied. Access to existing programs has been adapted through relaxed eligibility requirements or on-demand enrollment. New programs cover populations previously not supported. Yet the global average for increased social protection coverage is just 14%. In East Asia and the Pacific, coverage increased to 60% from 16%, although this figure is driven by a small number of countries. It is also important to analyze who is covered and who is not.
  • Adequacy. Many government responses have been constrained by the available budget and an insufficient or nonexistent contingency fund. Transfer sizes are often based on the amount of funding available rather than an assessment of needs. The duration of measures is also important to consider, with most cash transfer interventions being no more than 3 months.
  • Comprehensiveness has often been lacking in COVID-19 responses, without a strong focus on important needs, such as differentiating responses according to individual or household characteristics, and medium-term priorities, such as supporting livelihoods and laying the foundations for recovery.
  • The timeliness of responses has ranged from rapid to very slow. While some countries made payments within a couple of weeks of announcing a measure, others have yet to start payments. Some overly ambitious plans have not thoroughly reflected on the capacities of government and development partners, or the necessary steps for fundamental processes, such as targeting and registration.
  • Strong and pre-existing coordination mechanisms (including between social protection and humanitarian action) have been leveraged to create a more holistic approach to addressing needs across sectors. Countries that have previously experienced substantial shocks (pre-COVID-19) have often invested in such mechanisms and then leveraged them in response to COVID-19. Many countries, however, have had limited success in coordinating effectively.
  • Efforts to address gender and social inclusion appear to have worked well where existing programs have been incorporated into COVID-19 responses as in the case of Nepal. Women are disproportionally affected by the pandemic, but there has been little evidence to date of programming that targets them.
  • Accountability to affected populations has been limited across many countries and regions, with less emphasis paid to monitoring, evaluation, and grievance redress mechanisms. These are important for preventing exclusion and inclusion errors, including duplication and/or ghost beneficiaries. Many social protection systems are ill-prepared to address these issues on a rapid and wide scale, but there is often a wealth of local skills and capacity (e.g., in civil society) that can support such functions.
  • A range of delivery systems have been used successfully by some countries to respond to COVID-19, including efforts to leverage the capacity, resources, and systems that exist beyond a social protection program. Some innovative approaches to registration have been working well, including online registration in Namibia, South Africa, and Thailand, and the use of data in existing databases on unenrolled households. There have been many advances in payments, such as digital government-to-person (G2P) in several countries. That said, there have also been a raft of constraints, including lack of interoperability across registries/databases, data protection concerns, and the politicization of registration/targeting.

The degree of preparedness for shocks is a crucial ingredient for success. Where performance against these dimensions has been poor, it is usually in circumstances where social protection systems were not prepared to respond to such a shock.


Looking ahead: recovery from the crisis is likely to be prolonged and incremental

The global economic slowdown and a series of knock-on effects from COVID-19 will compound ongoing mega trends and undermine long-term development goals. There are, or will be in future, income losses for households, disrupted supply chains, depreciated exchange rates, and fiscal constraints for many governments because of substantial declines in tax revenues. It is likely that many countries will see fiscal contraction and financial sector tightening and reduced bilateral aid.

Food insecurity from loss of income and restrictions to markets and movements will increase, and there may be increased prospect of fragility, conflict, and violence associated with poorer economic conditions—in turn compromising access to services and income.

In addition, countries and regions will continue to experience increasing intensity and frequency of natural shocks, together with ongoing mega trends, such as climate change and migration.

Such scenarios suggest a large proportion of households may suffer long-term vulnerability, posing a threat to international and national development goals.

Bold actions in the present will lay strong foundations for the medium- and long-term

The crisis is an opportunity to advance policy debates on social protection, in turn creating fiscal space.

Social assistance has positive impacts on productivity and incomes, alongside social benefits in health, education, and nutrition. Broadening the proportion of citizens who benefit from social protection can also increase the acceptability (strengthened social contract) and willingness for governments to increase their spending levels accordingly.

There is also a wealth of international evidence on the impact of national social protection responses to COVID-19 and the cost-effectiveness of early action. Governments should take this opportunity to learn and re-calibrate.

Policy and fiscal space should aim to establish more coherent and agile social protection systems. The pandemic has exposed gaps in social protection systems: their inability to cater to expanding needs beyond the “currently poor.” There is now a clear rationale for governments to address those weaknesses and build a more comprehensive and joined-up approach across social assistance, social insurance, and labor markets, supported by robust delivery mechanisms.

Many aspects of the informal sector should be formalized as rapidly as possible, adopting suggestions by the International Labor Organization (policy responses and social security) and WIEGO, although such reforms do take time and social assistance will still likely be required to address short term needs. Localized lockdowns may be especially difficult for certain industries, such as tourism and garments; formalization and enhanced social insurance can mitigate risks for informal or unprotected workers.

In social assistance, the base of potential beneficiaries should be expanded, allowing the system to expand in the event of a crisis, and then contract thereafter. Focus on those facing the highest barriers and address gender disparities in wages and benefits, access to economic opportunities, and unpaid care work.

Investing in preparedness is nonnegotiable and should be prioritized with appropriate resources. There will be more shocks in future, whether economic, health, natural or otherwise, and those countries with prepared systems will be able to support their citizens more efficiently and effectively throughout the distinct—but frequently overlapping—phases of shock cycles (see Figure 2).[5] Particular attention should be paid to investing in delivery systems, such as information systems and mechanisms for targeting, enrollment, registration, payment and grievance redress, alongside other core elements, such as multi-sectoral coordination, policies, financing, and the involvement of local actors. TRANSFORM provides step-by-step guidance and learning materials on shock responsive social protection (see Section 3 especially).

Figure 2: A Stylized Illustration of the Patterns of Shock Cycles

Source: Beazley et al, 2019..

Overall, while the challenges may loom large, the current crisis presents an opportunity to make sound investments that will reap strong dividends in future. Social protection should be viewed as an integral component of a long-term, sustainable development strategy. Public expenditure on social protection averages 20% of GDP in OECD countries. It is recognized that the decisions recommended above will require trade-offs, and that governments should be realistic in their plans and adapt their approaches to specific contexts. Despite the enormity and gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, it presents a small opening for bold decision-making that can lay a foundation for future generations to prosper, thrive, and weather whatever storms they confront.

[1]Gentilini et al. 2020. Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19: A Real-Time Review of Country Measures. “Living paper” version 12 (July 10, 2020). World Bank, Washington DC, USA.

[2]Social assistance is generally defined to include a broad range of noncontributory instruments, such as poverty targeted cash transfers; old age/disability social pensions or grants; family and child allowances; public works/workfare; in-kind transfers/stamps/vouchers; and school feeding.

[3]ASEAN. 2020. Declaration of the Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19.

[4]ASEAN. 2020. Joint Statement of the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Social Welfare and Development on Mitigating Impacts of COVID-19 on Vulnerable Groups in ASEAN. 11 June.

[5]The key stages of a shock are stylized in Figure 2, illustrating that the beginning of a new stage does not necessarily mean the end of the previous. Clearly, this stylization will differ according to the type of shock (e.g., a protracted crisis). Figure 2 also illustrates how different shocks often overlap within a country and follow distinct patterns (e.g., recurrences) over time—meaning any strategy to address these needs to look across different shocks and their cycles in the short, medium, and long term.

Valentina Barca

Valentina Barca is an independent consultant with a focus on how delivery systems (e.g., design and implementation aspects) can facilitate the responsiveness, inclusiveness, and effectiveness of social protection systems. She is currently team leader on the DFID/GIZ Social Protection Approaches to COVID-19 Expert (SPACE) team. Earlier, she worked on shock-responsive social protection alongside DFID/OPM, WFP, DFAT, the World Bank and TRANSFORM.

Edward Archibald

Edward Archibald is an independent consultant with experience in the design and implementation of shock-responsive social protection systems across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He is currently deputy team leader on the DFID/GIZ Social Protection Approaches to COVID-19 Expert (SPACE) team. He holds an MPhil in Development Studies from Oxford University, and a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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