By Omar Hussein Amach
BANGKOK – The Asia-Pacific region can benefit from scaling-up investment in social protection to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, maintain social cohesion and reduce overall vulnerabilities.
Those were some of the insights from a webinar organized by the Asia-Pacific office of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction to explore the role social protection has played in past disaster recoveries, ongoing response to and recovery from COVID-19, and lessons to be drawn for future disaster-responsive social protection programmes.
The webinar was organized in partnership with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Social protection is well-regarded in development circles for its effectiveness in reducing poverty and boosting social equity, but it also plays an important role in responding to disasters.
“Cash-based assistance, which is often delivered through social protection mechanisms, is a critical intervention in nearly all emergencies and is also often the preferred form of humanitarian assistance by beneficiaries,” explained Ms Loretta Hieber Girardet, Chief of UNDRR in Asia-Pacific, who also moderated the discussion.
Moreover, social protection systems can help countries recover more quickly from disasters, according to Ms Tiziana Bonapace, Director of the ESCAP’s Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division.
Ms Bonapace gave the example of Fiji in 2015 when it was struck by tropical cyclone Winston.
The government increased cash transfers to all beneficiaries in its social protection system, and as a result, reduced the impact of the disaster on the poorest by more than 20 percent with a cost-benefit ratio of 1:4.
However, even in the middle of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, countries can rapidly scale up their social protection programmes especially if they leverage new technologies.
“Digital identification and the transfer of cash through digital means is showing scalability potential that is critical to timely response and ensuring that no one is left behind,” noted Ms Bonapace.
The need to scale up social protection in response to COVID-19 in Asia-Pacific is recognized as critical to lessening the impact of a growing economic crisis as a result of the prolonged lockdowns.
Indeed, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the leading intergovernmental organization in the region, views it as essential to maintaining social peace and stability as well.
“The ultimate ethos of social protection is to maintain social cohesion,” said Ms Sita Sumrit, Assistant Director of the Poverty Eradication and Gender Division in the ASEAN Secretariat.
“Fortunately for ASEAN, there is no social disintegration yet, but we don’t know if any deficiencies in providing social protection will entail negative ramifications on social cohesion.”
A particular challenge in the region for scaling up social protection is financing, which will likely be discussed at this year’s third High-Level Conference on Social Protection, under the leadership of Vietnam, which is chairing ASEAN in 2020.
The World Bank estimates that 126 countries have introduced or expanded social protection measures in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Among them is the Philippines, which ramped up its social protection system to protect the most vulnerable.
The country’s parliament on 24 March passed the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” which authorized the President to realign funds to counter the impact of the pandemic. The law includes the provision of a two-month cash grant program to 18 million low-income households thruugh the Social Amelioration Programme.
“Among the beneficiaries are the informal sector workers who typically, under the ‘no work, no pay’ scheme, do not receive social security assistance, have no leave benefits, and little savings,” said Ms Wilma Naviamos, Director of the Program Management Bureau in the Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare and Development.
Along with governments, civil society organizations play a key role in supporting social protection systems given their unique access to marginalized groups and community ties.
According to Mr Jerome Balinton, Humanitarian Manager with Save the Children Philippines, organizations like his would benefit from closer coordination with national governments when scaling up safety net programmes to ensure efficient delivery of assistance to those most in need.
“We are here to complement what the government is doing. Therefore, it is really important that we know the overall plans of the government to know where and when we should come in,” said Mr Balinton.
The United Nations plays a key role in the coordination and delivery of social protection services, through its country-based agencies supports governments across a variety of sectors.
“In the west of Mongolia we had a ‘dzud’ like situation and then came COVID, so we are dealing with multiple disasters,” said Mr Vinod Ahuja, who is the FAO Representative in Mongolia.
Mr Ahuja said it is important to constantly finetune social protection programmes to ensure the optimal targeting of assistance:
“Our assessments identified areas of need that cash transfers could not address, such as animals’ health and the inability of veterinarians to reach remote areas, so we created a package that combines cash-transfer plus additional interventions.”
Regardless of the form the assistance takes, social protection is indispensable to the COVID-19 response. Expanding social protection benefits to reduce the impact of all disasters is emerging as a key priority in the region, especially in light of the heightened risk profile in the region due to climate change.
“Social protection has the potential to play a far more important role, not just in response to disasters, but also in vulnerability reduction. Overall our aim is to build resilient societies that can withstand a catastrophe like COVID-19,” said Ms Hieber Girardet.
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