Valentina Barca, team leader on the FCDO- and GDC-funded SPACE initiative, shares three practical lessons on responding to the growing and evolving shape of needs emerging from the pandemic and its economic fall-out

In March 2020, when most policy-makers working on social protection responses to COVID-19 – and their humanitarian counterparts – started banging their heads to think of creative ways to expand to new caseloads and support increasing needs, my team had the privilege to be able to take a step back and develop two matrices.

Why would we ever do that? People tend to hate matrices! Because many of us had been working on operationalising the idea of Shock Responsive (Adaptive, Shock-sensitive..) Social Protection (TRANSFORM, 2020) for several years. Decision-makers needed simple tools to help them think through strategic options and build on existing systems. We were able to develop these tools because we had clarity on:

  • What it was we were collectively trying to achieve across sectors – by “we” I mean social protection actors and others mandated to respond to emergencies such as humanitarian and disaster risk management stakeholders. Having this kind of clarity is critical for informing strategic decisions on what actions to prioritise and which risks to mitigate - and ensuring these are equitable and inclusive. See the Strategy Decision Matrix (SPACE, 2020).
  • What it was we could be building on, to ensure effective shock response and avoid common pitfalls. See the Evaluating Delivery Systems Matrix (SPACE, 2020).
  • What we were unwilling to compromise on, hence two ‘sister’ documents, mainstreamed and used throughout our analytical and country work to comprehensively inform decisions to support gender equality, social inclusion and transformative outcomes (GESI).  Take a look at our GESI strategy guidance and implementation guidance (SPACE, 2020).

Fast-forward six months and we have fruitfully used these simple matrices to guide most of our 30+ SPACE country engagements in some shape or form, and adopted that same structure for a wide number of our published documents - which provide framing, thematic overviews (e.g. on supporting informal workers) and implementation support (e.g. on registration, payments, embedding local actors).

In three lessons from our work on SPACE, this blog aims to summarise why having this kind of clarity is so important in the COVID-19 context and how you might go about getting it. It will also identify entry points for leveraging existing systems and explain why a focus on preparedness now is vital. 

1. When we know what we are collectively trying to achieve, and pre-empt the risks and trade-offs we will face along the way, we are halfway there…

None of the countries we worked with had a ‘perfect’ COVID-19 response plan – not because they ‘failed’ in any way, but because perfection in emergency contexts is impossible to achieve. Any choice is severely constrained by what is feasible, affordable and politically acceptable – and the trade-offs to be considered are multiple. This is further complicated when multiple actors across sectors and at national and local levels are involved. Social protection is not the only sector with a role in supporting those who have been affected by COVID-19! Cutting through this complexity starts with knowing where we’re going.

Three strangers embarking on a perilous route across a desert will be better off mapping where they are heading towards and the dangers along the way – jointly strategising on how to address those – rather than each on their own with no prior thought.  

In our case, this translates to:

  • Having clarity on the ultimate outcomes we are trying to achieve – and how each of our sectors can help achieve those, together (building on our strengths, which vary from country to country). What are these outcomes? They are summarised in Figure 1 below, borrowed from the Curriculum on Shock Responsive Social Protection (TRANSFORM, 2020) and building on years of collective knowledge. Each and every one is relevant and should be given extensive thought (our Strategy Matrix summarises how).

Figure 1 What are we collectively trying to achieve?


  • Acknowledging from Day 1 it will be virtually impossible to achieve all of these, as there are trade-offs and tough decisions that will need to be made – but at least having a plan in place to address each risk arising and taking those tough decisions consciously, transparently and jointly.

What does managing these trade-offs look like in practice?

Take as an example ‘Country A’ (no need for names!) where a new registration mechanism is being implemented to collect data on new caseloads via a door-to-door census survey approach, feeding into a future national social registry. This country may be choosing to prioritise long-term sustainability and systems-building but is trading off on timeliness and accountability to affected populations. Strategies will need to be put in place to minimise the risks this implies.

On the other hand, ‘Country B’ has made the choice to leverage existing data from a social registry to reach a core expanded caseload in a timely manner – yet this will have consequences in terms of coverage, requiring alternative strategies to reach excluded caseloads in need. Not to mention the coverage vs adequacy trade-offs… most of the countries we have engaged with decided to explicitly prioritise giving ‘less’ (and potentially not enough to have any impact) to more people… perhaps the topic of a whole new blog!

2. It is critical to assess and leverage the strength of existing systems… across sectors

Figure 2 The building blocks of systems... across sectors


For those of us who had been working on shock-responsive’ and adaptive social protection for some time, two of our fundamental mantras include: “build on and strengthen existing systems and programmes as a priority” and “good enough over perfect”.

While emergencies are not the time for building a perfect system, anything that can help to achieve results needs to be leveraged, fast, sowing the seeds for medium- to long-term systems-building down the line. In practice, what does this mean?

  • Swiftly assessing the strengths of existing programmes and their delivery systems, across all relevant sectors and actors (e.g. recognising the vital role of local partners)
  • Picking and mixing from those to maximise results against the outcomes discussed above.

Remember those three strangers in the desert? Doing this would imply recognising Stranger 1 has more strength and resilience; Stranger 2 more tools in her sack; and Stranger 3 more contextual knowledge. And ensuring the desert-crossing plan leverages the strengths of each, collaboratively.

Exactly the same principle applies to the COVID-19 response! Depending on your country context there will always be something that can be built on. This might be from the social protection sector, counterparts mandated to respond to emergencies, or others (e.g. those that can help ensure social inclusion and protection). Breaking it down can help you to think about it more concretely (see Figure 2).

Within the SPACE Delivery Systems Matrix (SPACE, 2020) we simply un-picked these further, inviting matrix users to evaluate the strengths of each of these ‘building blocks’ within existing systems. Our guidance note on Practical Options for Linking Humanitarian Assistance and Social Protection Systems (SPACE, 2020), meanwhile, is aimed at humanitarian actors wanting to support social protection practitioners practically and along the delivery chain.

3. Next time… preparedness please!

Back to the three strangers in the desert, one last time. Wouldn’t it have been amazing if they had trained for the desert crossing? If they had the right map and had time to buy the right equipment and enough water?

Once again, this applies to us as well. COVID-19 may have been an unpredictable shock on an unprecedented scale and severity, but a) many experts had been warning us something of this type was on its way, and; b) our countries are subject to a wide range of other compounding shocks which have been increasing in frequency, magnitude, and intensity.

It is clear that ‘business as usual’ social protection is not an option going forwards – and that firefighting each individual shock as if it had been unexpected makes no sense. Social protection has a role to play in managing risk and reducing poverty, inequality, vulnerability and exclusion – no matter how these are generated. What this means in practice is that each and every one of us needs to take responsibility for understanding the risks, shocks and stressors the countries we work in might face, the impacts of these on men and women, boys and girls across the life course, and the implications of that for our programmes and their systems.

Through SPACE we have started setting out some core ‘preparedness’ measures in this document, but this is just the start… In some ways the COVID-19 pandemic has meant we’ve been able to move much faster with operationalising shock responsive programming than we’d previously envisaged – let’s build on this momentum by investing in proper preparedness now.

Our swift work within SPACE was only possible because of years of collective work on this topic, embedded within some of the core reference documents below:


This blog is part of the blog series ‘Social Protection Approaches to COVID-19’ from Social Protection Approaches to COVID-19: Expert Advice (SPACE). It is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and German Development Cooperation (GDC). SPACE is managed by DAI Europe Ltd contracted through the FCDO framework agreement EACDS Lot B service ‘Strengthening resilience and response to crises’, and the technical advice is provided by independent consultants contracted by FCDO, GIZ and other partners.


List of References

Alfers, L. et al. (2020) Informal Workers and Social Protection, SPACE, Accessible:

TRANSFORM (2020) Shock Responsive Social Protection – Manual for Leadership and Transformation Curriculum on Building and Managing Social Protection Floors in Africa, TRANSFORM, Accessible:

UNICEF (2019) Programme Guidance: Strengthening Shock Responsive Social Protection Systems, UNICEF, Accessible:

Barca, V. et al. (2020) Preparing for future shocks: priority actions for social protection practitioners in the wake of COVID-19, SPACE, Accessible:

Barca, V. et al. (2020) SPACE Evaluation Delivery System Matrix, SPACE, Accessible:

Barca, V. et al. (2020) SPACE Strategy Decision Matrix, SPACE, Accessible:

Bowen, T. et al (2020). Adaptive Social Protection: Building Resilience to Shocks. International Development in Focus, Washington DC, WB, Accessible:  

Holmes, R. (2019). Promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in shock-sensitive social protection, ODI, Accessible:

Holmes, R. et al. (2020) Gender and Inclusion in social protection responses during COVID-19, SPACE, Accessible:

Holmes, R. et al. (2020) Strengthening Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) During the Implementation of Social Protection Responses to COVID-19, SPACE, Accessible:

Longhurst, D. et al. (2020) Identifying practical options for linking humanitarian assistance and social protection in the COVID-19 response, SPACE, Accessible:

O’Brien, C. et al. (2018). Shock-Responsive Social Protection Toolkit – Appraising the use of social protection in addressing large-scale shocks, OPM, DFID, Accessible:

Social Protection across the Humanitarian-Development Nexus - A Game Changer in Supporting People Through Crises Course, SPaN, Accessible:

Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Coverage
    • Governance and coordination
  • Programme design
  • Programme implementation
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Shock-responsive social protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • Global
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's