In the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis, the immediate policy responses by many governments focused on protecting people’s health and ensuring food security. Today, as governments start to reopen their economies and slowly return to normal operations, an important issue is how poor people can be supported to restart their livelihoods, especially those working in the informal sector. An important question that has emerged is whether it is possible to build economic inclusion mechanisms into these systems to help the poorest cope with their losses.  

This blog post summarises the webinar, “Economic inclusion and Covid-19 response” held on June 11, 2020, which is the third webinar of the Economic Inclusion Learning Series. This peer-to-peer-learning webinar series gathers diverse experiences from countries moving their economic inclusion programs to scale. It has been organised by The World Bank Group’s Social Protection & Jobs Global Practice, the Partnership for Economic Inclusion (PEI), and the Social Protection for Employment Community (SPEC).

The webinar was moderated by Social Protection Specialist Aude de Montesquiou, (Partnership of Economic Inclusion, The World Bank) and keynoted by Puja Vasudeva Dutta (Partnership of Economic Inclusion, World Bank). Dutta discussed the design and reconfiguration of social protection mechanisms to address the medium-term recovery of the poorest’s livelihoods in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar was also joined by Director for International Cooperation Virginia Barreiro (Ministry of Social Development of Panama), Director of the Special Projects Directorate Onelia Peralta (Ministry of Social Development of Panama), and Technical Assistance Lead Lauren Whitehead (BRAC’s Ultra-poor Graduation Programme). After the keynote presentation, the moderator posed critical questions to the panellists.

Watch the webinar recording and see the presentation.


The current context

Dutta started by providing an overview of the landscape in economic inclusion programming and its potential as an instrument for medium-term livelihood recovery. She characterised the present conjuncture as a sanitary, financial and humanitarian crisis. Far from being a “class equaliser,” the COVID-19 pandemic has exploited preexisting socioeconomic vulnerabilities, hitting the poorest the hardest and reversing previous poverty reduction gains.

The global population of the extremely poor has grown massively, with estimates ranging from 80 to 180 million people having been pushed into extreme poverty since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forecasts indicate that the Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia regions will face the harshest consequences. From a demographic perspective, women and informal workers have proven to be the groups most vulnerable to the crisis effects.

As governments have begun shifting their focus to evaluate post-COVID-19 scenarios, authorities are evaluating strategies to support households and communities to increase their incomes and assets. Economic inclusion (EI) programs are one such a type of measure under consideration. Their goal is to instrumentalise these multidimensional sets of bundled interventions to curb livelihood loss.

Either directly or indirectly, 90 million individuals benefit from an estimated 219 EI programmes across 75 countries. The existence of a substantial base of EI programming across the world indicates that the necessary mechanisms to attend the needs of the poorest are already in place.

Geographic and demographic EI programming targeting patterns confirm the suitability of these schemes to address the COVID-19 crisis. Sub-Saharan Africa concentrates nearly half of these programmes, 88% of which target women and 65% also reach the poorest, the groups that have proved to be the most vulnerable. Furthermore, EI programmes can support several types of interventions while adapting to multiple kinds of constraints due to their diversity and flexibility. Hence, they are likely to serve medium-term livelihood recovery efforts adequately.


A framework for the redesign of EI programs in response to COVID-19

Given the current context, two sets of priorities have emerged for EI programming. On the one hand, ongoing EI programmes must have the flexibility required to make short-term adaptations to account for dynamic scenarios, where the need to apply containment measures may arise recurrently. This adaptability may ensure continuous delivery and effectiveness.

On the other hand, emerging EI programmes geared to support medium-term livelihood recovery will have to incorporate elements and characteristics that have proven useful in initiatives operating in different crisis contexts. In this sense, it is mission-critical to prioritise features that may increase the resilience and shock-responsiveness of delivery systems to put countries in more favourable positions to cope with future crises.

Shifting priorities have called for rethinking the scope and orientation of EI programming. This reflexive effort has opened the debate over the need for programme adaptation and the best approaches to tackle such an endeavour. In response to this, the World Bank has constructed a framework to systematically gather and integrate the lessons learned from the experiences of ongoing and new programmes.

Context constraints

The implementation process starts with an understanding of the context’s constraints (e.g., movement restrictions, avoidance of large gatherings, market disruption and depressed demand, additional vulnerabilities, and care burden for some groups, especially women and children). Next, the framework evaluates programmatic adaptations both in terms of program design and delivery.

Programmatic adaptations

Regarding design adaptions, it is vital to plan for market access in disruptive environments. EI programmes are particularly suitable to account for this type of adaptation, for most of them centre on either home-based or community-based microenterprise production, both of which tend to be decentralised. Amid the disruption, facilitating market access to micro-enterprises has been one of the main challenges that programmes have had to face. Confronting it has entailed adapting programmes to help entrepreneurs revise their business plans with the intent to take advantage of emerging markets (e.g., the personal protective equipment market). Nevertheless, adapting programme design to account for the microenterprise market access problem is one of the areas where practitioner and expert input would be most valuable at this moment.

Other programme design adaptations involve scope innovations through the leveraging of existing platforms. Utilising savings and self-help groups to channel messages regarding COVID-19 mitigation and prevention, and including individual coaching on gender-based violence are some of the programme additions under consideration. Access to savings and insurance products are also among the potential inclusions. Beneficiaries of these types of assistance have proven greater resilience to the effects of crises.

Finally, another form of programme design adaptation that is much needed is the inclusion of access to health care or health insurance; a benefit whose existence has been all but homogeneous among EI programmes. There are only two options when it comes to programmatic adaptations regarding delivery: devising mechanisms to digitalise it, or creating processes that ensure delivery while limiting gatherings. Some case studies have showcased the use of innovations to help people benefit from digital solutions, even when access to ICTs is not part of their daily lives. Likewise, some programmes have produced innovative guidelines to fulfil nondigital delivery in ways that ensure safety.

Leveraging national adaptations

The last section of the framework addresses the instrumentalisation of national adaptation mechanisms, particularly IT-based financial benefit channels. Dutta argued that EI programs could leverage the new processes and digital infrastructure that governments have put into place to provide beneficiary identification and selection, as well as electronic payments. The framework proposes the expansion of these technologies to accommodate services specific to the programs’ target population groups.

The COVID-19 response: experiences from around the world

Sharing experiences from Panama, Egypt, the Philippines and Bangladesh, panellists Barreiro, Peralta and Whitehead addressed the challenges encountered while adapting economic inclusion programs to drive COVID-19 response efforts and the role that ICTs have had in such a process. 

Barreiro and Peralta described an economic inclusion program developed in partnership with The World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Though devised in a pre-COVID-19 context, the program’s original objectives are as current as ever. Even if there is much more at stake behind their attainment today than there ever was, for the successful livelihood recovery of the Panamanian poorest may depend on it. This interdependence stems from the program’s strategy, which ties the consolidation of the indigenous communities’ family agriculture systems to their development of the productive and entrepreneurial capacities necessary to become resilient and self-sufficient. Thus, as their economic inclusion became viable due to enhanced productivity and entrepreneurship, their access to food became increasingly secured.

Nevertheless, the pandemic hit Panama before indigenous families could start sowing their land parcels, thereby bringing the program’s virtuous cycle to a halt. The lack of access to reliable ICT devices, networks and user know-how rendered digital aid provision fruitless, leaving the government and its institutional allies no choice but to carry out in-person relief efforts. However, poor geographic access to communities turned these initiatives into an arduous task. The endeavour’s emerging challenges have demanded greater interinstitutional cohesion, a dynamic that Barreiro and Peralta see as instrumental. According to both panellists, one of the lessons to come out of this humanitarian catastrophe is the need to adapt Panama’s economic inclusion program to incorporate the strengthening of indigenous communities’ organisational capacities to their strategic objectives. Should the program managed to integrate such an adaptation successfully, it has a chance to build a structural change component into the country’s overarching economic recovery process.

What the Panamanian authorities envision to pursue as a priority programmatic adaptation goal has been one of the critical elements in BRAC’s economic inclusion strategies for Egypt, the Philippines and Bangladesh. BRAC’s Ultra-poor Graduation Programme Technical Assistance Lead, Lauren Whitehead argued that leveraging specific traditional socialisation structures has been critical to circumventing the potential obstacles to benefit delivery emerging from COVID-19 containment measures. ICT choice has been a central component in this adaptation process, for the organisation has favoured the use of devices and practices that have long been a part of daily life for a vast majority: phone calls. Calling households to conduct quick surveys, BRAC has managed to diagnose and map out trends describing the current state of its target groups’ holistic welfare. The rising levels of food insecurity, the emergence of new obstacles to accessing granted social protection resources, the increases in domestic violence, and the degree of dissemination and retention of sanitary recommendations among the population are but a few examples. Thus, BRAC has been able to gauge the extent to which the pandemic’s effects on holistic welfare access have exacerbated the impact of specific barriers to livelihoods and economic inclusion.

Wherever infrastructural limitations have rendered the conduction of phone surveys unviable, BRAC has resorted to tapping into preexisting community institutions to obtain and convey information and resources. Context-specific intelligence and knowledge of socio-cultural institutions have guided BRAC’s benefit delivery strategies. For example, in Egypt, village social solidarity committees are linked to some of the community structures that existed before the implementation of BRAC’s graduation program. In the Philippines, BRAC took advantage of the peer group structure based on shared livelihoods, whereby contacting a single group member gave the organisation access to the entire associated network. Together, phone calls, solidarity networks and livelihood-based peer-to-peer contacts have enabled BRAC to penetrate deeper into Egyptian and Filipino societies than it would have, had it relied solely on ICT capabilities.

In Egypt, the Philippines and Bangladesh alike, BRAC layers economic-inclusion-oriented benefits on top of existing, government-sponsored, cash transfer programs. However, in the case of Bangladesh, BRAC has been able to ensure continuous program delivery through digital channels by capitalising on political, financial, and infrastructural conditions built along an extended, more mature graduation program. Today, past efforts to expand both ICT device usage and mobile financial technology adoption among the program’s target beneficiaries are paying off. The private-sector partnerships established to launch bKash (the mobile financial technology platform through which program cash transfers flow) and the broad availability of devices and know-how resulting from previous campaigns have made it possible for BRAC to maintain and increase benefit delivery. Thus, unlike Panama, Bangladesh has been able to continue and adapt its active economic inclusion programs utilising ICTs to its advantage.


This was the second blog post of the Economic Inclusion Learning Series, organised by the World Bank Group Social Protection and JobsPartnership for Economic Inclusion (PEI), and SPEC. This webinar series is designed based on peer-to-peer learning from diverse experiences from countries moving economic inclusion programs to scale. If you have any thoughts on this webinar summary, please add your comments below!

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
    • Social care services
  • Labour market / employment programmes
    • Active labour market programmes / Productive inclusion
      • Productive / economic inclusion programmes
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Monitoring and evaluation systems
    • Governance and coordination
  • Programme implementation
    • Benefits payment / delivery
  • Programme design
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Political economy
  • Programme graduation
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Agriculture and rural development
  • Financial education and inclusion
  • Food and nutritional security
  • Health
  • Human capital
  • Poverty reduction
  • Resilience
  • Water, sanitation and hygiene
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • Egypt
  • Panama
  • Bangladesh
  • Philippines
  • Latin America & Caribbean
  • Middle East & North Africa
  • South Asia
The views presented here are the author's and not's