Thoughts on designing a national social safety net

Over at the IDS blog, Stephen Devereux outlined ten steps to the design and implementation of a national social protection (SP) programme. Its an useful list for SP practitioners and local policymakers – a ten-point check-list; an useful starting point. I found interesting in particular, the point on ‘needs assessments’:

Needs assessment: A social protection system should not be an off-the-shelf blueprint, but must be grounded in local analysis of social protection needs, which can be derived from national poverty surveys and other secondary sources. Who are the poor and food insecure? What are the drivers of poverty and vulnerability? By comparing the needs assessment with the policy mapping, a gaps analysis can be conducted that will inform the development of the social protection strategy.

Determining who the deserving beneficiaries are, and the value (in cash and/or kind) of the transfers is critical. At the very least, this calls for a reasonably sophisticated statistical capacity in the countries designing these policies for themselves, which poses a significant challenge. Moreover, determining ‘who’ benefits will never be too far removed from identity-politics. National poverty surveys often see long gaps between two rounds, affecting the validity  of the data available. There have been many promising examples of the use of participatory methods to determine deprivation levels in communities. But targeting has always been a contentious issue, with many analysts now advocating universal coverage. And while cash transfers have a growing set of advocates, research on the Public Distribution System in India has also thrown up findings that are in favour of universal in-kind distribution.

Another aspect to consider are the effects of crises and developing appropriate response strategies. An useful reading is this Ravi Kanbur paper “Protecting the poor against the next crisis”:

Crises are likely to be new normal for developing and transition economies. In designing programs to protect the poor against crises, governments face two uncertainties — uncertainty of crisis type and uncertainty of crisis timing

In the face of these uncertainties, I have proposed three lines of action for governments and for the international community: (i) Conduct a Social Protection Assessment Program which“stress tests” the collection of social protection interventions against a range of possible crises to reveal gaps and vulnerabilities, (ii) Over the medium term, finance improvements in design to addressing these gaps and vulnerabilities, and (iii) offer a pre-qualified line of assistance for social protection which goes into action automatically when crisis triggers are breached

As Kanbur emphasises, crises are always going to be around the corner. Recent experiences have shown that crises (financial, climatic, pandemics etc) can wipe out livelihoods and set back development processes; and the severity of crises have continued to increase. Irrespective of what might ideally be required in such situations, developing countries will continue to grapple with weak crises-response systems and inadequate social protection systems due to technical and political compulsions. Improving preparedness and resilience is going to be a mammoth task ahead for governments and donors.

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