This blog post was written by Gala Dahlet and Ana Ocampo.


The COVID-19 pandemic has developed into a health, economic and social crisis, threatening decades of progress in poverty reduction for the first time (World Bank, 2020) and significantly increasing food insecurity (IFPRI, 2020), adding to the impacts of conflicts and climate change. These complex and overlapping issues call for coherent approaches. 

Successes and challenges of the COVID-19 response in rural areas 

About 80 per cent of the extreme poor live in rural areas and experience more overlapping deprivations in accessing services and infrastructure than their urban counterparts, as well as lower access to social protection and economic opportunities (Castañeda et al, 2018; FAO, 2019).  They also overwhelmingly depend on agriculture for their subsistence, a risky sector severely impacted by climate variability and change (Castañeda et al, 2018; De la O Campos et. al, 2018). Globally, about 76 per cent of the rural workers who are extremely poor and 60 per cent of those that are moderately poor engage in agriculture (Castañeda et al, 2018). Economic activity in rural areas is primarily informal, therefore, generally excluding the rural poor from employment related social protection, including social insurance or employment guarantees (ILO, 2018).  

Prior to the pandemic and despite global progress on social protection coverage, only 44 per cent of the global population received at least one form of social protection, and only 29 per cent of the world’s population had access to comprehensive social security (ILO, 2019), leaving behind vulnerable groups such as women, migrants, refugees and indigenous peoples. In rural areas, coverage is lagging behind due to specific physical, legal, financial and administrative barriers. Furthermore, existing social protection programmes and services may not necessarily respond to the specific risks and needs of rural populations. Expansion of social protection in rural areas is needed both in terms of breadth and depth of coverage, and better adapted to the different profiles of rural occupations (Allieu and Ocampo, 2020). 

Social protection contributes in many ways to not only alleviating poverty and preventing the impoverishment of vulnerable populations, but also supporting the productive capacity of rural households. Social protection allows households to manage risks by releasing liquidity constraints and avoiding negative cope strategies, acting as a key mechanism for the poor to access safe and nutritious food, invest in their production and diversifying livelihoods (FAO, 2017). Moreover, social protection is increasingly being recognized as a core instrument for natural resource and management and addressing climate-related shocks (FAO and Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, 2019). This is important considering that agriculture and food systems in general contribute to up to 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and are responsible for up to 80 percent of biodiversity loss, because of an increasingly overuse of scarce natural resources including water, forests and land. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a massive expansion of social protection systems, especially social assistance, to buffer the impact of the crisis (Gentilini et al, 2020). Countries like Ethiopia, Palestine or Brazil, for instance, built on pre-existing social assistance programmes and broader systems, which allowed for a quick reaction to Covid-related disruptions. Such responses included horizontal expansion of food baskets in Palestine, and the creation of an emergency cash transfer programme in Brazil, building on the main cash transfer programme, the Bolsa Familia, considerably increasing the beneficiary population and the amount of the transfer, allowing for the lowest extreme poverty rate in the country in 40 years (Duque, 2020). This considerable expansion of the targeted population of this emergency cash support shed light, on the one hand, on the need to expand the reach of the system, while, on the other, providing an opportunity to better coordinate existing interventions to open up economic opportunities to affected populations. 

This expansion of social protection coverage is unprecedented, in terms of resources allocated, number of measures, and mix of measures. Interestingly, the expansion has not only focused on social assistance, but also on social insurance, in many notable cases expanding coverage to informal workers. However, this expansion can be characterized as fragile, as the transfers are usually temporary and tend to only partially counter income losses. Systemic barriers also remain, specifically leaving out vulnerable groups (UN, 2020). Effectively achieving universal coverage is more than ever achievable. In rural areas, this will require more coordinated approaches with the agricultural sectors in order to respond to the specific needs and profiles of rural populations. This synergetic approach can also achieve broader objectives beyond universal coverage. 


Building policy and programmatic coherence to build back better 

To tackle the multidimensional challenges that rural areas face, pre-existing and also resulting from COVID-19, implementing coordinated and synergetic public policies and programmes is essential. Agriculture plays a key role in the transformation of the economy and ensuring food security, and it is also a central source of livelihoods for rural populations. However, poor and/or vulnerable small-scale producers face structural constraints that limit their ability to produce more and better, and adequately access input and output markets, which are critical to secure sufficient income streams. Social protection can alleviate some of these structural constraints and support risk management processes, which can have an important impact on the productive capacity of these producers.  

In a sector so exposed to the impacts of natural disasters and climate change and variability, social protection can also address underlying vulnerabilities of small-scale producers, and be instrumentalized to contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. For instance, the multisectoral Productive Safety Nets Programme in Ethiopia, the country’s social protection flagship programme, provides social protection benefits to poor rural households while also rehabilitating community infrastructures through public works programmes, which is crucial to tackle poverty. 

The government is currently designing the next phase of the PSNP around three main axes: shock-responsive safety net, linked to early warning systems to better manage risk; capacity development and human capital investments; and strengthened institutional capacity. The new design should allow for a better integration and coordination amongst sectors to implement the PSNP, for a better use and management of resources and a more efficient targeting. In Brazil, the Seguro Defesoan unemployment insurance scheme for artisanal fishers during the closed season, allows for the recovery of stocks while ensuring a predictable and stable minimum wage income for fishermen and women during up to 5 months, thus integrating natural resource management considerations to the social protection programme. 


The way forward  

In the context of COVID-19, achieving greater coherence between social protection, agriculture and natural resources management is critical to address the immediate loss of income suffered by the population, but also pre-existing poverty and vulnerability, and fostering economic inclusion, which is critical for an inclusive recovery. Coherent multisectoral approaches can secure basic household income, while also facilitating investment in productive activities, a better access to market and financial services and the improvement of technical capacities, including in terms of natural resources management if correctly addressed in the design of the policies and programmes.  

The expansion of social protection in response to COVID-19 has highlighted the fundamental role of social protection as well as the existing gaps. The formidable efforts to expand the reach of existing systems also offer an opportunity to rethink the role of social protection, and develop broader linkages with other sectors in order to facilitate the recovery from the devastating impacts of COVID-19. Developing coherence between social protection and agriculture, natural resource management, as well as climate risk management could support broader objectives such as poverty reduction, food security and improved nutrition, but also climate change adaptation and, to some extent mitigation, thus ensure a more inclusive but also sustainable recovery.  


This blog post is published as part of the activities to promote and disseminate the results and key discussions of the global e-Conference Turning the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity: What’s next for social protection?’, held in October 2020. The blog summarises the key messages from the e-Conference’s Side Event on Fostering coherence between social protection, agriculture and natural resource management for an inclusive and sustainable recovery. The session was moderated by Benjamin Davis, Director of Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equity of FAO; and joined by the speakers Sintayehu Demissie Admasu, Food Security Coordination at the Ministry of Agriculture - Ethiopia; Colin Andrews, Program Manager of Partnership for Economic Inclusion World Bank; Samer Titi, Director of Planning and Policy at the Ministry of Agriculture, Palestine; Fabio Hazin, Professor at Federal Rural University of Pernambuco – UFRPE. You can watch the full session here 



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