COVID-19 has highlighted the deficiencies in the social protection systems in the Caribbean. The challenge for Caribbean countries is how to transition from COVID-19 response to more medium to long-term shock responsive strategies. The webinar “From COVID-19 Response to Broader Social Protection Reform – Regional Experiences” reflected on the experiences of Barbados, Saint Lucia, and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 and the implications for broader social protection reform.
The webinar was organised by the SDG Fund Joint Programme for Universal and Adaptive Social Protection in the Eastern Caribbean, which is being implemented by 5 UN Agencies (WFP, ILO, UNDP, UNICEF and UN Women). The Joint Programme is supporting efforts by Barbados, Saint Lucia and the OECS for more shock-responsive, adaptive and universal social protection systems. The panel was moderated by Lilia Ramjeawan, Programme Coordinator for the Joint Programme, and the speakers were Ms. Grace-Ann Cornwall, Programme Director, Social Development, OECS Commission, Ms. Velda Octave-Joseph, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Local Government and Empowerment, Saint Lucia, and Mr. Andrew Pollard, Coordinator for the Poverty Alleviation and Reduction Programme, Ministry of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs, Barbados.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the socio-economic conditions across the Caribbean region resulting in a high degree of social exclusion and affecting countries’ ability to respond effectively to the needs of vulnerable persons. As part of their COVID-19 response, Eastern Caribbean countries turned to social protection programmes to mitigate the socio-economic impacts. Experiences from Barbados, Saint Lucia and the wider OECS revealed that outdated policy frameworks, lack of data, and poor monitoring and evaluation were the key hindrances to delivering effective social assistance. COVID-19 has provided Caribbean countries with the impetus to address the deficiencies in their social protection systems and make it more adaptive and better able to respond to shocks.
Grace-Ann Cornwall set the context for the discussion by providing an overview of the social protection systems in the OECS and the challenges faced in delivering effective social assistance to Caribbean citizens. Despite the strong commitment and government leadership that exist in the social protection sector in most Caribbean countries, efforts in providing social protection programmes are hampered by various gaps in the system, among them being limited systems interoperability and data exchange, inadequate documentation for the operation of social protection, and the growing need for psychosocial support services which is not being met with the existing cadre of social workers. Social Protection financing, which is primarily government funded, accounts for a small percentage of countries’ GDP. With regard to social protection delivery, the region is currently in a state of “evolution” moving toward having an organised and mature system to include social registries, beneficiary registries, payment systems, case management and grievance redress mechanisms, and protocols and frameworks for interoperability and data exchange.
In addition to the overall challenges for the region, Velda Octave-Joseph further highlighted Saint Lucia’s specific challenges. The social protection system is administered through an outdated policy framework which lacks clear operational procedures for coordination and delivery, and does not allow for flexibility and rapid upscaling or expansion to meet the needs of the “new poor” in a timely manner. Barbados also faces similar challenges. In addition to outdated legislation, Andrew Pollard further highlighted the lack of an empirical approach to social service delivery as a result of poor monitoring and evaluation, and the siloed approach to social service coordination and delivery. The speakers all agreed that COVID-19 has forced Caribbean policy makers to think beyond the immediate response to transitioning to medium- and long-term social protection support to meet the needs of vulnerable persons.
From response to recovery
Responding to COVID-19 aided in highlighting the gaps in the social protection systems and reinforced the need for wide-ranging reforms across the entire system including governance arrangements, coordination mechanisms, administrative structures, resource capacity, delivery systems, and fiscal space.
Grace-Ann outlined the key priorities guiding the reformation of the social protection systems in the OECS which relate to:
- Improvement in delivery
- Advocating for greater social protection among vulnerable populations
- Building community and human resilience
- Reintegration into society
Working with development partners and having regard for the strategic priorities for the OECS, a region-wide social inclusion and social protection strategy is being developed, which will include a clear plan of implementation, a monitoring and evaluation framework, as well as financing options for social protection. In support of the strategy a social protection toolkit is also in development, which will provide practical guidance to both policymakers and practitioners on how to design, implement and monitor social protection programmes and systems. The strategy is also being supported by a region-wide data gap assessment.
The issue of migration resulting from shocks is a main concern for the OECS. To address the challenges and bottlenecks and put in place systems for equitable social protection of displaced persons, a study on Migration is also being undertaken.
Velda explained that the review of Saint Lucia’s social protection system was being guided by the country’s national economic recovery and resilience plan which has social protection as one of its pillars. Under this plan, a comprehensive reform of the social protection system has commenced to facilitate resilience building and ensure greater responsiveness to shocks. To this end, the reform will seek to:
- Align social protection initiatives to active labour market and entrepreneurship training programmes to protect and build human capital.
- Strengthen micro-lending institutions to leverage resources to better support entrepreneurship/micro-enterprises impacted/dislocated by shocks.
- Strengthen public works programmes to stimulate economic activity at the community level and support household income.
- Review the National Insurance system to explore options for unemployment insurance.
- Promote options for food security.
- Increase attention paid to psychosocial support to persons in need.
These initiatives are being supported by the integration of technology in service delivery, establishment of complementary data management systems, improved coordination in planning and preparedness, and review of the funding arrangements for response efforts.
Barbados is likewise using the lessons learnt from COVID-19 to undertake a systemic review of its social protection system to be more inclusive. Andrew stressed that the main aim of Barbados’ social protection system is to recentre the citizen as its core, engage in building participative social capital, particularly family relations and strategies to contribute to the empowerment of the citizen.
The internationally recognised Core Diagnostic Instrument (CODI) is being employed to support the government in mapping its social protection system and generating the necessary evidence for reform. This undertaking is being supported by capacity building and specialised social protection training for core staff involved in the delivery of social protection programmes. The opportunity to innovate and use technology as a key tool in the delivery of social protection has been embraced. As a result of COVID-19, beneficiaries were unable to access the system and, in some instances, unable to access much needed cash to meet their needs. The government is now moving towards an online system for registrations, applications and delivery of social assistance including facilitating electronic cash transfers. A geographic positioning system is being used to identify vulnerable persons, the elderly in particularly, so that they may be easily reached in times of shocks to render assistance. To address the siloed approach to coordination and delivery, a family services department is being established to bring under one umbrella body the country’s social protection programmes. These initiatives are being supported by scaled-up research to inform policies and strategies.
The panelists agreed that COVID-19 has forced Caribbean governments to critically examine their social protection systems and undertake reforms to make those systems more shock-responsive and adaptive. The experiences of Saint Lucia and Barbados can be used in supporting similar initiatives in other countries of the OECS.
The webinar ended with a lively Q&A session which you can access here.