This is a longer version of a blog that was originally published on CaLP which you can find here.


With COVID-19 increasing interest in the concept of linking humanitarian assistance with national social protection systems, to meet the demands of this global challenge Gabrielle Smith shares some practical tips for humanitarian practitioners on how this can be achieved.  Gabrielle is an expert on the FCDO- and GDC-funded SPACE initiative which is supporting donors, governments and delivery partners to think through their options for cash responses to COVID-19.


The past five years has seen interest grow in the concept of linking humanitarian assistance with national social protection systems. Across development and humanitarian spheres, it seems everyone’s talking about it – policy makers and practitioners; governmental and non-governmental actors; those working in long-term social protection; and those working in emergency and humanitarian response.

It is highlighted in various international commitments, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Grand Bargain, and the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Meanwhile a range of analytical pieces such as EUD’s SPAN have set out what the expected benefits are for doing so. 

Linking humanitarian assistance and social protection provides a practical step towards realising that most nebulous of goals – strengthening the ‘humanitarian-development nexus’. As stated in the recent CaLP State of the World’s Cash report: linking offers “a specific entry point for crisis response linked to development programmes and systems, while addressing underlying poverty, building resilience and supporting localisation of humanitarian action”. 

The same report documents the expansion of activity in this space since 2017.  The arrival of COVID-19 has seen this interest peak further given the immense needs it has created, and it is a central focus for our work as  SPACE. Below we present five key insights that SPACE has consolidated in response.


1. What is understood by ‘linking’ humanitarian assistance and social protection, in practical terms, is still evolving.

Experiences, pre-COVID and since, are highlighting that operationalising these linkages in practice needs careful consideration by humanitarian practitioners. It is becoming clearer that humanitarian action can be ‘linked’ with social protection in a variety of different ways. The World Bank’s Unbundled paper highlights that a spectrum, or continuum, of integration is possible. Activities of humanitarian actors can – and should – go beyond simply just supporting the expansion of specific national social protection programmes, which is where much policy discussion in this space has so far focused.

As set out in the SPACE guidance note on linkages, designing and implementing complementary and mutually reinforcing assistance is critical. This might involve aligning and harmonising design of systems; improving coordination between systems; or sharing certain functions between humanitarian and social protection programmes to enhance coverage, adequacy and comprehensiveness of the overall response. Both sectors have comparative advantages, and these can be brought together in different ways, coordinating not only caseloads but also capacities, focusing on joint outcomes (see our SPACE Strategy Decision Matrix for an overview of these outcomes).


2. Systematically analyse and think through your options before taking decisions.

So how do you decide which specific strategy for linking humanitarian assistance and social protection is right for your context? Donors and implementers planning a humanitarian response linked with social protection cannot approach this in vague terms. At an early stage you must be clear on precisely what is being linked, for what purpose, and how this will be achieved.  This is highly context specific and must take account of the entry points, as well as possible barriers, at the level of policy, programme design and implementation.

This requires a certain level of political economy, systems and programme analysis. A helpful framework to guide this analysis is to think through potential linkages across each of the three typical ‘Building Blocks’ of social protection and humanitarian systems (policy, programme design and administration/delivery), to understand where linkages may be most feasible and why. The building blocks are set out in the SPACE Delivery Systems Matrix. The SPACE guidance note on linking humanitarian assistance and social protection sets out the key considerations for linking at each step, as well as suggested actions for humanitarian actors and practical examples. 


3. Analyse the trade-offs inherent in each option on the table.

Being feasible is one thing, being appropriate (or most appropriate) is another. Linking humanitarian assistance and social protection should add value - it is not an end in itself. It should bring more benefits than alternative ways of assisting people affected by shocks, and this is not always guaranteed. While there may well be benefits to be gained, experience is showing that there will also be trade-offs to consider. These are well elaborated on in a forthcoming research report commissioned by FCDO, exploring the value for money of linking humanitarian assistance and social protection (Juillard et al. 2020).

For example, using national social protection delivery systems might help to quickly and cheaply achieve scale but might exclude some of the groups most affected by the crisis, or expose existing exclusion errors. Alternatively, there might be longer term benefits where humanitarian actors contribute to social protection system strengthening but where speed of delivery in the short term is compromised. Our SPACE Note on Value for Money in the COVID-19 response summarises these further.

For example, harmonising transfer design between government social protection and humanitarian programmes might be done to reduce confusion (as seen in the COVID-19 responses of partners in Nigeria, where many partners have aligned their transfer values with the value provided on the National Social Safety Nets Programme). Or, to help increase government buy in and adoption of support to reach marginalised groups such as refugees.

However, this can compromise effectiveness where these are not set at a level relevant for humanitarian needs.  The limitations and risks of linking need to be understood along with the benefits. One good example of this is in Nigeria, where there is interest from government and a range of partners to strengthen the National Social Register as a data management platform underpinning development and emergency programmes of government and partners, but where there has been little analysis, to date, of potential protection risks for the conflict-affected northern states. Where risks or limitations outweigh the benefits, linking humanitarian assistance and social protection may not be the right approach. 


4. Identify and engage all actors strategically from the outset.

Linking humanitarian assistance and social protection effectively and sustainably requires the buy-in and support of a large number of different stakeholders: between national government departments responsible for social protection and disaster risk management; between government and its international partners; and between these international actors themselves. There is also a clear need to engage local organisations and networks representing a range of diverse groups (including women's rights and persons with disability) in planning and response.

There are often competing or divergent visions of what linking humanitarian assistance and social protection should look like. This has been an issue in Malawi, for example, where UN agencies are promoting different options for linking the two in the lean season, and the World Bank still another. Or, a particular pathway to linking humanitarian assistance and social protection may create benefits for some stakeholders but constraints for others.

For example, as has been seen in Kenya, social protection and disaster management departments are in favour of integrating shock response capability inside the social protection system but realising this will require discussion and agreement across different divisions of government concerning respective roles, responsibilities and ultimately, budgets. 

Humanitarian actors have tended to engage through a very project-centric approach, whereas the aim, ultimately, must be to engage strategically and develop a coherent and systemic approach.  This means finding ways to involve the range of stakeholders from the outset, take account of diverging perspectives and negotiate compromises.

Donors can influence this process through funding key coordination functions that support a whole system approach such as in Yemen, as well as requesting and incentivising humanitarian actors to work better together across multiple sectors (including, for example, gender and protection). Further Guidance by CaLP on strategically coordinating cash, including coordination with social protection, can be found here.


5. Think carefully about what aspects of national social protection implementation systems it makes sense to use, as well as what the humanitarian sector could contribute in order to enhance national social protection provision.

As unpacked in the SPACE guidance note on linking humanitarian assistance and social protection and in the World Bank’s Unbundled report it built on, it may be better to leverage only certain parts of the social protection system (administrative processes, institutional capacities, or data) to deliver humanitarian response. And on the flip side, humanitarian systems and capabilities can be used to fill gaps in, strengthen and support a social protection response – with a view to longer-term system strengthening. The humanitarian sector has a wealth of expertise, systems and tools that can add value to, or fill gaps in, government social protection responses.

Local organisations are also well-placed to deliver and fill these gaps in a coordinated way, and are often able to respond to the specific needs of those most vulnerable and at risk of the impacts of crises (women’s organisations, informal worker member-based organisations, disability organisations etc). On some government’s social protection responses to COVID-19, partners have been directly implementing systems for, or providing technical assistance on market analysis, accountability mechanisms, management information systems, payment systems, and monitoring.

For example, in Nigeria the federal government is designing a social protection response for households in urban areas. Partners have provided technical assistance to design of the rapid registration processes and some will hire survey firms to support state government bodies that are leading this data collection. Others are supporting the federal government to move forward with digitisation of the social protection cash payment mechanism.  Alongside this, a range of partners are implementing cash responses of their own and aim to leverage data in the government’s National Social Registry where this is available, as well as align with the government’s rapid registration processes for new registration activity.

Meanwhile, in Serbia, UNICEF is filling gaps in the national social protection response to the pandemic. Its cash programme will make use of household data held in the social protection data management system.  UNICEF is contracting its own e-payment service provider to deliver this assistance, to reduce risks for beneficiaries while avoiding overburdening the social protection payment system.

Thirsty for more examples? The SPACE guidance note provides many more. And you can watch a whole webinar on this topic here – as well as many more on the topic here. Happy watching!


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.

A condensed version of this blog was originally published on CaLP. You can access it here.



Juillard, H., Smith, G., Maillard, C., Jourdain, J., Vogel, B., Shah, V. and Weiss, L. (2020). Cash assistance: how design influences value for money, Paris: KAC.

Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Programme implementation
    • Informations Systems (MIS, Social Registry, Integrated Registry)
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Global Development Agenda (SDGs / MDGs)
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • Poverty reduction
  • Resilience
  • Global
  • Nigeria
  • Yemen
  • Serbia
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's