Managing Disaster Differently: Shock-Sensitive Social Protection in Malawi

The webinar, titled Managing Disaster Differently: Shock-Sensitive Social Protection in Malawi, took place on the 15 February, 2018.  It highlighted Malawi’s heightened vulnerability to seasonal and unpredictable climate-related shocks, which exacerbate its already high levels of poverty and food and nutrition insecurity.

The webinar drew on information compiled in a recent report, Towards Shock-Sensitive Social Protection System in Malawi, undertaken by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (RCRCCC), and commissioned by the Government of Malawi (GoM) with financial support from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and through the German contribution to the European Union (EU) Social Protection System Initiative, in cooperation with the The World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Bank. The webinar was organised to share the valuable findings of the report, which provide useful insights applicable to other countries facing seasonal and unpredictable climate related shocks.

The event was moderated by Selvi Vikan (Team Leader, Social Protection, GIZ Malawi) with presentations by Rebecca Holmes (Senior Research Fellow, Social Protection and Social Policy Programme, the Overseas Development Institute), Harry Mwamlima (Director of Poverty Reduction and Social Protection Division, Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, Malawi), Edward Archibald (Chief of Social Policy, UNICEF Malawi), Daniela Cuellar, (Policy Officer, WFP Malawi), and Caoimhe de Barra (Country Director, Concern Worldwide, Malawi).

The recording is available here and the presentation here.


Shock-sensitive social protection in Malawi

Towards Shock-Sensitive Social Protection System in Malawi presents concrete ways for social protection to be strengthened to provide predictable support to the most vulnerable in the face of shocks, in coordination with the humanitarian sector. Shock-sensitive social protection has become a national priority in Malawi, reflected in the new Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III, the Malawi National Social Support Programme (MNSSP II), the National Resilience Strategy, and the Joint Emergency Food Aid Programme (JEFAP) Guidelines.


Responding to poverty and climate risks in Malawi

The first discussion highlighted the role of seasonal and unpredictable climate shocks in Malawi, and the consequent need for shock-sensitive social protection in the country. Rebecca Holmes outlined the critical issues faced in the Malawian context, citing how underlying food insecurity and seasonal patterns of production and consumption result in recurrent cyclical crises, which obstruct long-term poverty reduction.

Widespread poverty and vulnerability, combined with exposure to climate-related shocks, demand high levels of emergency assistance. For example, in 2016/2017, 6.7 million people required food assistance. Whilst there have been positive impacts of social protection in reducing poverty and vulnerability over the last decade, climate-related shocks often curtail this progress.

Data reveals that social protection has not yet achieved poverty reduction at the required scale in Malawi. What’s more, it has been unable to mitigate the impact of predictable seasonal risks. Attempting to accommodate these seasonal and climate-related risks into social protection programme design has accounted for the demand for shock-sensitive social protection in Malawi.

Therefore, the ambition of the report was to meet the overall goal of reducing poverty and vulnerability using social protection, while increasing resilience to climate related shocks by designing flexible and adaptive shock-sensitive solutions.


Managing disasters differently through national programmes

The perspective of the Malawian government was considered to further solidify the findings of the researchers. They highlighted how it was unfortunate that predictable seasonal patterns and minor weather variations end up developing into humanitarian crisis due to a failure to leverage longer-term development measures before a crisis. Recognition of the crisis in disaster management helped the government acknowledge that social protection played a pivotal role in alleviating the effects of the crisis.

Consequently, it has become national priority to increase resilience and respond to shocks through the Malawi National Social Support Programme.


The Programme aims to:

  1. Promote resilience to shocks by anticipating a crisis: promoting coping capacity via savings mechanisms, diversifying livelihoods and increasing productivity.
  2. Prepare for shocks: through planning and coordination in advance of shocks.
  3. Support households in meeting their immediate needs in response to a shock: by scaling up existing social protection programmes to reach a larger proportion of the population affected; and increasing transfers to those already in programmes in an event of a shock.
  4. Support recovery from shocks: by promoting a ‘building back better’ approach by ensuring that programme design focuses on developing resilience to shocks.


Going forward

Possible gaps in this programme were presented during the webinar by Harry Mwamlima. He recognised how the National Social Support Programme could implement the Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP) during crisis, thus accommodating those that need to receive humanitarian food assistance. Another programme opportunity is incorporating a school meal programme, which would aim to improve learning for students and reduce negative coping strategies.

Further ambitions include the realisation of a Unified Beneficiary Registry, which is a social registry that captures socio-economic data on poor households for targeting benefits. This would also support early warning and triggering electronic payments in times of crises. This technology is useful in both development and humanitarian settings.

The ambition is that such alternatives can be further contextualised and refined in practice by the Government of Malawi and its partners, for the realisation of a more resilient nation, the alleviation of poverty and vulnerability, and ultimately, the prosperity of the people of Malawi.


Testing vertical expansion of humanitarian and social protection programmes during emergency

UNICEF presented the testing of the vertical expansion of the Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP), which involves the delivery of humanitarian assistance through government social protection systems. It is being undertaken in partnership and collaboration with government actors and WFP. Malawi’s social protection system is currently static and is not designed in a way that allows it to respond to crisis or disasters. By preparing the SCTP to expand vertically, SCTP beneficiaries (e.g. all or a sub-set) could temporarily receive more money in times of crisis.

The trial seeks to answer the question: Is it feasible for the SCTP to be adapted to deliver timely support in response to crisis and shocks? This initiative has grown from a desire to explore better ways to channel humanitarian assistance to SCTP beneficiaries, who are often eligible but excluded from humanitarian targeting processes due to negative community perceptions around ‘double dipping’. This would ensure the most vulnerable have their needs met, whilst protecting long-term development gains.


Social protection-humanitarian piggy-backing

During the 2016/2017 food emergency response, the Humanitarian Response Committee agreed that the more than 132,000 ultra-poor households receiving a basic cash grant under SCTP in drought-affected districts be included in the drought response caseload for 2016-2017. A multi-stakeholder review found that this “piggy-backing” - providing SCTP beneficiaries with additional support during the lean season - is perceived by the community as a necessary measure.

However, granting SCTP beneficiaries assistance from two different channels (programmes) is perceived as double-dipping, even if the programmes’ objectives are different. Providing additional support during the lean season to the SCTP beneficiaries through the SCTP channel, as well as possible humanitarian support, could be a way to mitigate negative community perceptions and thus to smooth assistance delivery.

The trial is therefore testing the capacity of the system to deliver humanitarian assistance in the future (e.g. to see whether the SCTP could be used as an ‘implementing partner’ for future humanitarian responses) to a pre-defined caseload (to either all SCTP or a sub-population of SCTP). The vertical expansion trial is complementing other work underway or planned for 2018 by UNICEF in partnership with government, including:

  1. Analysis on how key MNSSP programmes could be adjusted to account for seasonal variations in prices (UNICEF and ILO)
  2. Modelling which investments in the social protection system would make it shock responsive (UNICEF and WFP)
  3. A feasibility study on Horizontal Expansion of social protection programmes


Emergency horizontal expansion of resilience programmes

In the context of the largest emergency response to date, following an El Niño event, 40% of the population needed humanitarian food assistance. Within this portion of the population, there were abled bodied households with the capacity to engage in productive asset creation. With the objectives of improving food and nutrition security, reducing negative coping strategies, and increasing the generation and protection of assets, WFP conducted a horizontal expansion of its Food for Assets (FFA) assistance programme.

Lessons learned and opportunities stemming from this horizontal expansion were presented, including the transition of the emergency caseload to multi-year resilience initiatives, which provide access to integrated and adaptive support that facilitate graduation from extreme poverty and hunger.


Key findings from the horizontal expansion showed that:

  • it was an effective approach for fast-tracking stabilisation and recovery;
  • fitting work norms and targeting are key to effectiveness;
  • and that the initiative is conducive to behavioural change.

All these successes were crucial for the transition to multi-year, resilience-building initiatives. Areas for improvement include the need to better articulate the vision and approach for the expansion going forward, including the planning, coordination, messaging, and timing.

The adaptive and integrated approach presented was an innovation leveraging on WFP’s FFA and work on climate risk management and local procurement, whereby different interventions are phased in to facilitate a transition away from poverty and hunger, including weather-index microinsurance, savings, credit, climate services, as well as market access and support. The graduation pathway is protected by a forecast based finance mechanism that allows for the expansion of the programmes to meet exceptional need due to climate shocks.

Lastly, plans to facilitate collaboration across the humanitarian and social protection sectors were presented, focusing on harmonising targeting approaches, enabling a smoother expansion of assistance to climate-related shocks.


Graduation from poverty

A graduation from extreme poverty approach was presented by Concern Worldwide in the form of a five-stage model:

  1. Comprehensive Targeting: to identify households that need the most assistance from the programme. These households are selected using a combination of methods including community identification through participatory wealth rankings (PWR).
  2. Consumption/income support: derived from the concern of providing the equivalent of €13 per month. The objective is to improve and stabilise consumption. Support is in a form of a non-conditional cash transfer that enables participants to meet their basic needs while they develop options for a livelihood strategy. This support helps participants and their families improve their consumption levels until they start earning an income from their own assets developed and enhanced as part of the programme.
  3. Skills training and regular coaching: focuses on enhancing their human assets and includes providing access to practical, short, hands-on training, as well as routine coaching and monitoring visits.
  4. Microfinance and savings: help extremely poor people manage risks, build resilience to shocks they face, and reduce the likelihood of having to resort to negative coping strategies, such as distress induced sale of assets or removing children from school.
  5. Asset transfer: helps participants jump-start sustainable and profitable economic activity. Opportunities for viable livelihoods are developed through studies that analyse demand, available infrastructure, value chains, and upstream and downstream linkages.


Conclusions were presented by the moderator, Selvi Vikan (GIZ Malawi). Unfortunately, the sound did not work well; however, the following was mentioned:

A future shock responsive social protection system in Malawi will have to:

  • Prioritise strengthening the delivery of core social protection programmes to achieve their objectives. This requires emphasis on getting the basics right.
  • Address the predictable annual food gap for household to reduce the scale of emergency response.
  • Design social protection programmes to prepare and plan for shocks and resilience building.
  • Develop social protection programmes to scale to increase coverage of beneficiaries.
  • Strengthen links to the humanitarian sector.


As Malawi moves forward, we will need to keep a few caveats in mind:

  • As with any hot topic, it is important not to pre-suppose shock responsive social protection system as the magic bullet. We need to consider at the outset how to measure the success of such a system and compare it to the results of a separate humanitarian response.
  • We need to pay attention to any adverse impacts of a shock responsive social protection system to ensure that a household is not worse off with a social protection response than with an emergency response.
  • If our programme aims to fulfil both development and emergency functions, there will need to be close coordination between social protection and humanitarian actors.
  • We may need to reconcile the objectives of social protection of reducing chronic poverty or vulnerability with the humanitarian imperative of saving lives.


With these aspects in mind, Malawi will continue to build its experience in building shock responsive social protection systems by continuing to test crisis-modifiers, e-payments, contingency financing and the use of social registries for emergency response.


Access the Q&A from this webinar here!


This blog post is published as part of the Webinar Series, which brings together the summaries of webinars organised by and partners on a variety of themes related to social protection. If you have any thoughts on the topic discussed, we would love to hear them. Please add your comments below and we will get back to you.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • General
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Benefits level
  • Benefits payment/delivery
  • Conditionalities
  • Coverage
  • Programme design and implementation
  • Social protection systems
  • Targeting
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disasters and crisis
    • Humanitarian crisis
  • Malawi
  • Middle East & North Africa
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
The views presented here are the author's and not's