Co-authors: Nenad Rava, Maya Marquez, and Patrick Breard


The Joint SDG Fund has mobilised and invested a total of USD 101 million into integrated social protection to leave no one behind in 35 joint programmes. The programmes accelerate the SDGs through integrated, cross-sectoral policy innovation and systemic change that “break down the silos”. As they come to the finish line, the results are brought to scale, including a minimum of 147 million people with access to new or extended social protection services and contribution across the SDGs, including the SDG 1.3.1 on universal social protection floors. This new chapter for UN collaboration on social protection created a foundation for further investments, including for the Global Accelerator for jobs and social protection for just transitions.


The Joint SDG Fund

As the UN flagship global development fund, the Joint SDG Fund (henceforth: the Fund) operates on a two-fold strategic mandate to supercharge the UN Development System to be fit for purpose, and, in turn, to catalyse systemic transitions at the country level in areas of integrated policy and financing to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Fund operates through joint programmes led by UN Resident Coordinators and implemented by two or more UN entities to provide coherent, cross-sectoral support to national stakeholders to “break down the silos” and achieve the SDGs. The Fund has invested USD 237 million into 225 joint programmes implemented by 26 UN entities in 118 UN country teams. This contributed to all 17 SDGs, focusing on Goals 1 (poverty, including social protection), 2 (hunger), 5 (gender), 10 (inequalities), and 17 (partnerships).


A new chapter for UN collaboration on social protection

In March 2019, the Fund launched its first global call for proposals on integrated policy for SDG acceleration focusing on Social Protection and Leave No One Behind (LNOB). A total of 114 UN country teams applied and, after a robust technical review, the top 35 moved into the development of full joint programmes (Rava, 2020a). With a total funding of USD 101 million (including USD 32 million in co-funding) into this portfolio, the Fund opened a new chapter in UN collaboration on social protection for the SDGs across all regions (figure 1).


Figure 1: Geographical spread of joint programmes on Social Protection and LNOB


Implementation of the 35 joint programmes involved more than 600 partners from governments, civil society, the private sector, trade unions and employers’ associations, and international financial organizations. Among the UN system, 15 UN entities and 2 Regional Economic Commissions collaborated (figure 2).


Figure 2: UN entities involved in implementation of joint programmes


Some of the innovations and best practices from these joint programmes were later included in the milestone publication on UN collaboration in social protection (ILO-UNICEF-FAO, 2022). The report underlined a shared understanding that UN entities recognize that social protection is an area that is beyond the mandate and capacity of any single agency. Naturally, delivering as “One UN” requires shared commitment to overcome existing competition for funding, reduce duplications, and produce coherent action that leverages comparative advantages of UN entities. Interviews conducted with UN Country Teams (Breard, 2021) revealed that the UN impact and cross-sectoral collaboration with top government officials improved with the leadership by Resident Coordinators.


Shifting the gears towards policy shifts and systemic change

The Portfolio Mid-term Review (Breard, 2021) consolidated the overarching Theory of Change (figure 3) focusing on the cascading multi-sectoral impact through key pathways of systemic, catalytic contribution to transformations required to advance the SDGs. This was the underlying foundation for the programme-specific Theories of Change for SDG acceleration (Murphy et al, 2021) that included over 100 policy innovations.


Figure 3: Theory of Change of the portfolio on integrated social protection and LNOB


It was already in 2020, the first year of implementation, that the portfolio started to produce first major results, but the progress was accelerated with maturation of systemic and policy changes in 2021 that brought about transformative impact across 39 countries. The strategic emphasis, in addition to addressing leverage points for social protection system change towards universal floors, was on the most vulnerable: children, elderly, Persons with Disabilities, youth in informal economy, and rural and indigenous populations. As the implementation of the portfolio took place in the context of global COVID-19 pandemic, joint programmes re-purposed funding and adapted workplans to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, mostly through Shock-Responsive Social Protection (Rava, 2020b).


The Joint SDG Fund helped us catalyse immediate collective action in Cambodia. Nearly 2.8 million more Cambodians are now covered by social protection.

(Pauline Tamesis, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Cambodia (8 December 2021)


By the end of 2021, the progress in facilitating UN collaboration to catalyze progress on the SDGs was demonstrated at scale. Overall, the 35 joint programmes have improved the life of a minimum of 147 million people with access to new or extended social protection services (Joint SDG Fund, 2022). They also catalysed USD 211 million in additional financing to sustain and expand social protection systems and protect the most vulnerable. Human rights mechanisms were effectively mainstreamed (Harrison, 2022), while gender was the main focus in 90 percent of programmes.


Integrated social protection as an SDG Accelerator

Across 36 joint programmes in 39 countries, the joint programmes accelerated progress on 11 SDGs. The main focus was indeed on SDG 1, specifically SDG 1.3.1 on universal social protection floors. However, the emphasis on integrated social protection systems, in addition to the secondary focus on LNOB, increased the overall scope and reach of SDG contributions. Primary impact was on gender and reducing inequalities. The secondary impact was based on the multiplier effect of social protection coverage and improved access, which has linkages with improved livelihoods (including decent jobs), education, and health and well-being.

The number of joint programmes that addressed Shock-Responsive (or Adaptive) Social Protection increased considerably in the context of the global pandemic. Initially, the focus was on natural disasters and the impact of climate change (hence, contributing to respective SDGs on those), but was extended to mitigating broader socio-economic impact of the health crisis. As the scope and scale of vulnerabilities rapidly increased, the salience of social protection, in particular those systems seeking more responsiveness and adaptation, came to the foreground and led to strategic adjustments across all joint programmes.

On average, these joint programmes contributed to 4 SDGs, whilst the most cross-sectoral one extended to as many as 9. An example is Bangladesh, where women workers in tea gardens have improved access to better equipped health centers for ante- and post-natal needs – which then contributed to 9 SDGs. Targeting 5 SDGs, Albania developed localized models for integrated health and social services for marginalized groups impacting over 10 thousand people through the pilots alone, and then further scaled up with government funding.

The analysis of Theories of Change of joint programmes (summarized in Murphy et al. 2021) indicated that there is still more progress needed to adequately address transformations in the context of SDG interdependences. While joint programmes developed sound Theories of Change, they tended to lack a more explicit link to specific SDG targets, and they would have benefited for more emphasis on systemic leverage. This did not prevent catalytic results, as even joint programmes with “weaker” Theories of Change became successful. Nevertheless, more conceptual and methodological progress is needed not only for effective programme design for integrated social protection, but also to improve generic models (e.g. Figure 4) by unwrapping the contribution of social protection to the SDGs further at the level of SDG targets, which is where systemic effects, leverage and genuinely transformative impact are manifested. 


Figure 4. Basic model of social protection and SDGs



While more lessons are being drawn through analysis of the final joint programme reports and independent joint programme evaluations, there is already evidence that the complementarity of knowledge and partnerships amongst UN agencies is instrumental to advance integrated, country-wide systemic change. For instance, the national early childhood and care system in Argentina (supported by UNICEF, UNDP, ILO and ECLAC) reached 856,000 children and 3,000 early childhood workers. The joint work of ILO, UNICEF, UNDP and UNFPA in Vietnam expanded social protection coverage towards 3.25 million people, with an increase of USD 36 million of government funding per annum – in addition to the new policy and financing framework for 1.1 million additional persons with disabilities.


Where next?

The 35 joint programmes will be completed in 2022, following independent evaluations. In partnership with experts from ILO, UNICEF, UN Women, UNDP and WFP, the Fund is conducting in-depth analysis of catalytic results and lessons learned, leading to a final global report on this very first investment of the Fund into the SDGs.

Even after their end, the contribution of joint programmes continues towards country-wide replication and further increase in of social protection coverage. For example, the systemic effect of a constitutional amendment in Mexico will benefit 45 million people. Over 10 programmes (e.g. the Philippines, Lao PDR, Madagascar and MCO Barbados) catalysed additional funding, while in Mongolia, the successful pilot of the Child Money programme led to USD 200 million of government investment to scale up child benefits. 

In 2022, the LNOB portfolio launched 18 new programmes on LNOB to accelerate the SDGs in 27 Small Island Developing States, with close to half focusing on social protection. Shock-Responsive Social Protection is in the focus of many of 83 joint programmes funded under Fund’s Development Emergency Modality activated to respond to “triple crisis” (food, energy, financing).

The Fund is incubating a dedicated window for catalytic support within the Global Accelerator for Jobs and Social Protection for Just Transitions that seeks the creation of 400 million jobs and expansion of social protection to 4 billion people. Social protection will also be the focus of other emerging Fund’s strategic priorities for SDG acceleration, including on food systems, localization, internal displacement, and digital transformation.