The webinar "Institutionalisation of Social Assistance in African Countries” was the last event of “The State of Social Assistance in Africa” webinar series and took place on July 9, 2020. It was organized by UNDP’s Regional Service Centre for Africa and the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) and was based on the UNDP’s The State of Social Assistance in Africa report published in 2019.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the importance of social assistance systems in creating resilience to crisis and strengthening countries’ disaster risk response; it also has exposed that many countries do not have institutionalised social assistance programmes that provide comprehensive coverage to people in times of need. Institutions play an important role in determining whether social assistance entitlements are realised and how social assistance programmes are implemented. This webinar of the series focussed on:

  1. presenting the state of social assistance institutions in African countries while tracing trends and identifying gaps, and
  2. highlighting how institutions relate to countries' ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.  

The event was moderated by Rômulo Paes de Souza, Senior Investigator at Fiocruz. He was joined by three panellists Stephen Devereux, Research Fellow and co-Director of the Centre for Social Protection at the Institute of Development Studies, Valentina Barca, Senior Consultant for Social Protection

and Jane Marie Ong’olo, Head of Division for Social Welfare, Vulnerable Groups and Drug Control at the African Union.


You can find the presentation here and the session's recording here.


Institutionalising Social Assistance in African countries

Our first presenter Valentina Barca started the session defining what we are talking about when we are discussing the topic of institutionalisation in the realm of social protection. When assessing the state of institutionalisation we look at whether countries have long-term strategies or policies on social protection, reliable funding, stable government structures tasked with administering SP programmes, well allocated human resources as well as transparent and solid rules, processes and delivery systems.

The existence of a national policy or strategy tells us whether a country has an overarching vision for social protection that is in line with national priorities As the State of Social Assistance in Africa report shows, African countries increasingly have policy and strategy documents on social protection. The rise in strategic documents came in the aftermath of a stark growth in social protection programmes in African countries. Interestingly, the uptake of new programmes is often sparked by crisis situations. Currently, with the explosive growth of new social protection programmes in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we are witnessing this phenomenon.

While strategies establish a country’s social protection policy objectives, effective institutional coordination can ensure the availability of an authority that can hold line ministries to account against the actual achievement of these policy objectives. The existence of an implementing agency with effective decision-making authority and the ability to get support and coordinate with other government agencies here is key to facilitate effective institutional coordination. As the report shows, in African countries, there has been a trend towards having a mandated ministry or a single agency that drives social protection programmes. Fewer countries also have a single executing agency, in many cases working with an integrated information system, which improves the level of coordination between different programmes.

Core capacity and good vertical coordination are furthermore important to facilitate the smooth administration of social protection programmes. In African countries, the report finds that responsibility for administrative matters is often shifted downwards, decision-making power tends to be highly centralised and funding and human resources allocations at the lower level are often inadequate. In terms of human capacity, understaffing is often a great issue with staff to recipient ratios being extremely low even in better faring countries. In many cases, this creates an overreliance on volunteers and also limits the ability of social workers to do more time-intensive social work and relegates them to the simple distribution of cash. In addition to other factors such as political appointments, high turnovers and difficulties in recruitment, this makes it difficult to build sustainable human capacity at the administrative level in many countries.

Finally, rules, processes and sound delivery systems are important to ensure that transfers make it to recipients in the most efficient way. Here, African countries have found innovative ways to adapt delivery systems and processes to local contexts and use active outreach registration, digital payments and innovative targeting approaches among other methods to close the last mile.


Institutions and COVID-19 response

Our first panellist Valentina Barca has introduced us to the building blocks of African social assistance delivery systems. These building blocks, in part, determine the efficacy of countries’ COVID-19 response. Our second speaker, Stephen Devereux, using three case examples then led us through how countries have either built on existing institutional mechanisms and/or expanded those and how that affected the efficacy of their COVID-19 response.

The first case study is of Ethiopia, which has applied a shock-responsive solution building on existing social protection institutions, programmes and platforms. In response to the crisis, the Ethiopian government decided to leverage the existing direct support and public works programme Productivity and Safety Net Programme to continue to pay recipients while relaxing the public works condition. In this way, recipients could continue to receive benefits without engaging in the, potentially public health endangering, public works aspects of the programme. Alongside this, the government also vertically expanded another programme, the Urban Productivity and Safety Net Programme, by topping up the cash benefit amount that recipients receive. Both expansions built exclusively on existing platforms and worked within the existing institutional mechanisms and could thus be implemented rapidly and with ease. Since delivery systems were electronic and allowed for socially distanced disbursement, the expansion was also administrable in line with public health guidance.

The second case, South Africa, decided to introduce a new programme, the COVID-19 Social Relief Fund, as part of the crisis response. The application and delivery mechanisms of the new programme allowed for electronic application and remote disbursement of transfers. Recipients could thus apply for and receive transfers while adhering to social distancing measures. However, getting the transfers to recipients has proven difficult as building institutional structures to administer a new programme takes time. Currently, the South African agency tasked with administering the new programme is faced with a great backlog of applications and has been unable to disburse benefits in a timely manner leaving many applicants without access to the grant in a time of need. Simultaneously, the South African government also doubled the transfer amounts of the Child Support Grant programme. Since the Child Support Grant is a pre-existing programme, the existing institutional mechanism could here be used to administer the expansion of transfers rapidly. Moreover, the fact that the transfer is targeted at children means that all types of eligible households irrespective of labour arrangement or status can benefit from the programme. Although the Child Support Grant still excludes, for example, informal workers who are hit by the crisis but do not have children, recent research shows that, indeed, most informal workers happen to be covered by the Child Support Grant. In line with the LNOB principle, it is certainly important that people left behind are targeted by additional programmes such as the COVID-19 Social Relief Fund programme in times of crisis. Nevertheless, the South African case shows us that working with existing programmes is much faster. Moreover, when existing programmes already have relatively wide coverage in normal times, they also tend to be able to reach most people affected by the loss of livelihoods in times of crisis.

The third case study presented is Botswana. In Botswana, the pandemic prompted a full review of the national social protection system. The review revealed that many programmes running in Botswana have been built in response to a specific crisis or shock with little consideration for coordination between programmes or comprehensive coverage systems. This prompted the newly drafted National Social Protection Response and Recovery Plan to re-envision the national social protection systems taking a lifecycle approach and building on a strong unified institutional framework including grievance redress mechanisms to create a more comprehensive social protection system. In addition, the draft proposes the institution of a temporary social support grant that can be scaled up to provide a shock-responsive safety net in crisis situations. Furthermore, the draft advocates for establishing a legislative framework that deems access to social protection a right as well as strengthening human capacity and delegating administration of programmes to the lowest level can also contribute to empowering frontline workers to improve the delivery of transfers. Lastly, the draft proposes the set up of two new institutions to coordinate and deliver social protection programmes. One being a Ministry of Social Development which would manage all social protection affairs and the second being a single agency responsible for the delivery of transfers to recipients. In the case of Botswana, the crisis has thus led to a complete reimagining of the national social protection architecture.

In the three cases studies, countries have either used existing institutions, adapted institutions or created new ones as part of their crisis response. In general, those institutions set up purely in response to COVID-19 have been fairly slow, complex and difficult to manage. Using existing institutions has worked well when these are adapted or even better when existing institutions simply top up transfer amounts. In conclusion, the cases suggest that when possible it is recommendable to build immediate crisis responses on existing institutions rather than building up new ones. If new ones have to be set up it is important that these are as transparent and as simple as possible. When countries have well-functioning and shock responsive social protection institutions in normal times, building upon them to respond to the crisis is more easily possible. Looking forward, this crisis may provide a policy window to build the shock-responsive capacity of social protection programmes as well as to invest in creating improved (e.g. digitised) delivery processes and systems.


The Role of the African Union Commission in Developing and Promoting Social Protection

Our third speaker Jane Ong’olo finished the session by elaborating on the African Union Commission’s (AUC) position on social protection as a tool for sustainable development. As per the Agenda 2063, the AUC strives to push forward the development and promotion of pro-poor policies such as social protection policies. Inclusive social protection has gained traction as a policy instrument that critically contributes to the transformation of the continent. Here it is important to have a systemic approach to social assistance that links social protection to basic service provision, quality education, access to nutrition and wellness, employment and fair labour markets as well as linkages to the rural economy. This has been elaborated on in the AU Social Agenda 2063 as well as the accompanying Social Protection Protocol among others.

As part of the response to COVID-19, the AUC recognises the importance of not only addressing the health aspects of the COVID-19 crisis but also the effects the crisis is having on peoples’ livelihoods. Here, inclusive social protection measures play a key role to fend off the negative socio-economic impacts of the crisis. Specifically, social protection measures targeted at particularly vulnerable groups such as migrants, refugees, IDPs, people with disability and others are key to support people throughout the crisis. While the current crisis displays many dangers, it equally portrays an opportunity to improve and adapt national social protection systems to be ready for the future. This can happen by i) re-examining fiscal and economic policy priorities and assessing whether more funding can go towards building stronger social and health sectors; ii) increasing funding for sustainable and comprehensive social protection programmes and iii) pushing for the finalisation and adoption of AUC instruments related to social protection such as the social protection protocol or the older persons and disability protocols and iv) ensuring that COVID-19 responses are tailored to the vulnerabilities of children who are particularly affected. In conclusion, building better national social protection systems requires taking a systemic approach that promotes coherence between programmes, policies and institutions. It also requires the integration of social protection with other sectors such as labour, environment, agricultural and economic development.

The webinar concluded with an interesting Q&A session, accessible here.


This blog post summarises the second webinar of the Webinar Series on The State of Social Assistance in Africa, organised by the UNDP.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social assistance - General
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Coverage
  • Governance
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disasters and crisis
  • Resilience
  • Risk and vulnerability
  • Africa
  • Middle East & North Africa
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
The views presented here are the author's and not's