Southern Africa is highly vulnerable to natural disasters, whether it be drought or flooding. Many countries are in fact suffering from consecutive climate disasters. The strongest El Niño to hit the region in 35 years has again pushed many rural poor into food and nutrition insecurity. To address the huge humanitarian needs, the World Food Programme and partners – in support of governments – have scaled up operations in the region to provide emergency assistance to more than 10 million people during the opening months of 2017 across seven countries.
Climactic shocks such as drought erode the ability of vulnerable people – particularly smallholder farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture – to pursue their livelihoods. They also threaten years of development gains by forcing people to take hard choices such as limiting the quality and number of meals they eat, selling off their cattle, and even withdrawing their children from school. In this context, short-term emergency interventions are vital to save lives but, alone, cannot address the long-term chronic food and nutrition insecurity.
We must ask ourselves, how can we and our partners prevent climactic shocks from turning into crises and better address the needs of the most vulnerable? Climate and weather patterns are changing, and so too must the humanitarian and development sectors. In September 2016, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoys on El Niño, Mary Robinson and Macharia Kamau, echoed this sentiment in their ‘Blueprint for Action, calling for a comprehensive and fully-integrated approach to enable people and states improve their climate resilience.
If we are to reduce the impact of climate- and weather-related shocks, increasing social protection coverage is key. That is why the worldwide reach of social protection systems is expanding, promoting economic growth among the poor and addressing chronic needs such as food and nutrition insecurity. By addressing the drivers of poverty, social protection programmes are helping to make households better able to deal with natural and other disasters.
Africa has been at the forefront of this movement. Since 2010, the number of countries using unconditional cash transfers to support the most vulnerable has doubled from 20 to 40 since 2010, whilst 45 countries now have school feeding programmes in place to combat malnutrition and support education.
Despite this progress, however, far too many people remain uncovered by social protection. Many systems are still underdeveloped, struggling with issues such as providing sufficient transfers, lack of coverage, incomplete databases, and – critically – limited capacity to reach the poorest of the poor.
Recognising these challenges, it is vital that social protection and safety net providers work coherently to develop and extend the systems in a sustainable manner. This requires finding greater ways to combine systems, expertise, and resources.
‘Shock-Responsive Social Protection’ is one such approach that enables households to better prevent, prepare for and address the climactic and other stresses that assail them. This means ensuring social protection programmes and their systems incorporate risks, vulnerabilities, and likely response needs so they can flexibly address fluctuating or unpredictable shocks.
Examples of shock-responsive social protection can already be seen across the continent. In Ethiopia, rather than waiting for a humanitarian appeal, contingency funding in the country’s main social protection programme enables additional funds to be quickly transferred to affected households. In Kenya, the Hunger Safety Net Programme was designed to be scalable in times of crisis. By creating a database and distributing bank cards to all those in a shock-prone area – not only the ultra-poor enrolled in a social protection programme – support can be extended to shock-affected households in just two weeks.
The World Food Programme’s work across the region with the private sector to provide weather-indexed insurance is another example of how social protection programmes can protect smallholder farmers’ livelihoods in times of insufficient rainfall. In Malawi, where compounding and successive shocks have led to over 40 percent of the country’s population requiring humanitarian assistance at the peak of the 2016/7 lean season, humanitarian and development partners are working closely to advance shock responsive social protection. Innovations include automatically registering the ultra-poor enrolled on the Social Cash Transfer Programme for humanitarian assistance, and scaling up the multi-year School Meals Programme to reduce the levels of food and nutrition insecurity facing school children.
Advancing ‘shock-responsive social protection’ can also mean using emergency responses as a vehicle for developing fundamental social protection systems. In Malawi, WFP and partners are working together to explore both how the social protection database can help humanitarian targeting, and in turn how the database can “piggyback” on the humanitarian registration processes to help update it.
Working like this enables development and humanitarian partners to know who they are serving – and it also helps ensure that vulnerable households receive the right assistance at the right time.
Studies on shock-responsive social protection, like ones taking place in Malawi, Lesotho, and Mozambique, will help to identify opportunities for the humanitarian and development sectors to learn from each other. In a world of climate change, it is essential that social protection systems are designed with the capacity and flexibility to respond to shocks.
Efforts in this sphere are needed by partners from across the humanitarian and development spectrum – government, non-governmental organisations, the UN and the private sector. Success should be measured by how these efforts change the lives of the most vulnerable. By working together, shock responsive social protection can help move the region towards a more resilient future.
Lola Castro is the United Nations World Food Programme deputy regional director for Southern Africa