By Sarah Blin, through the Social Protection Technical Assistance, Advice, and Resources (STAAR) Facility


Since February 2022, the Ukraine crisis has seen the interplay of the politics of refugee protection, the preservation of humanitarian principles in occupied zones, strong social protection systems flexing to respond, and a large-scale humanitarian cash response. STAAR (The Social Protection Technical Assistance, Advice and Resources facility) carried out analysis on opportunities to support linkages between social protection and cash responses, and options for shock responsive social protection (SRSP) in the context of the Russian invasion. The analysis (available here) has identified the following six key considerations for Ukraine and regional refugee-hosting countries as well as lessons for future responses:


1. Capacity and resilience of existing systems is key

First the resilience of national social protection systems provided the backbone for both the continuation of services and the expansion of services to Ukrainians. All governments, and especially Ukraine, Poland and Moldova had to ensure that the person-power, infrastructure and financing of their social protection system could be sustained and not buckle under the pressure of this crisis. The international community recognised this risk from the onset. Aid agencies provided surge support and assistance to central ministries. The EU used humanitarian funding and provided financial assistance to its members, the refugee Global Concessional Financing Facility was activated in Moldova and non-earmarked funding was provided to Ukraine. The strength of these systems provided aid agencies with opportunity to add value, not substitute.


2. Fiscal and funding choices will determine future capacities of social protection systems

At this point in the crisis,  discussions on future financing, informed by an analysis of conflict-dynamics, refugee intentions and political will must become more specific and address the following:

  • humanitarian vs development funding: separating these mechanisms with too much orthodoxy undermines the spirit of refugee law and of the EU temporary protection directive for Ukrainian refugees, as well as prior and ongoing efforts to bridge the two types of interventions, within the frame of SRSP.   
  • fiscal space vs external funding: Ministries of Finance must support sectoral ministries to cost the crisis as well as secure sources of funding in a way that does not jeopardize commitments to-date towards Ukrainians, and towards nationals who receive social protection services.
  • operational delivery at municipal level: the lowest tiers of government, the people who serve there, and especially social workers, were provided with very little additional support (such as emergency response skills, financing, surge capacity, etc.). Resilience and sustainability will be determined by the ability of local governments to continue to deliver, and this should be central to planning and costing choices, looking ahead.


3. Technical tweaks matter and benefit from a humanitarian lens but need a long-term view

The mechanisms for technical and operational collaboration were established in all countries (except Hungary). Responders early in the crisis set out to assist governments to establish additional features to existing systems (Ukraine, Moldova, Slovak Republic) whilst providing direct support to Ukrainians. Changing elements of social protection policies and programmes in a time of crisis can indeed be a  springboard for building shock responsive social protection systems. But it is important to better articulate the value proposition of those who wish to contribute and to consult, from the onset, with stakeholders who have supported reform and systems strengthening through the years and will continue to do so.


4. Humanitarian and social protection dialogue is political, not only technical

Technical collaboration will benefit from  political commitment for system-to-system integration. We suggest a number of political dialogues should take place to strengthen and sustain technical and operational outcomes:

  • At national level, and especially in Ukraine within the HCT, between the HCT and Cabinet, a conversation should take place on the future of social assistance and what that then means for the role of humanitarians, and budgetary and funding choices.    .
  • At regional level, there is now an opportunity at the regional level for a policy discussion on shock-responsiveness as a critical feature of social protection systems of the future. The Council of Europe is an ideal framework to do so – taking stock of the COVID and Ukraine crises, natural disasters and the impact of the economic crisis on poor and vulnerable persons.
  • Again at regional level, a discussion on the future of the temporary protection directive and more broadly the future of refugee protection in Europe from the particular angle of social assistance, will help sustain achievements to date.

Consolidating into legislation commitments to maintain assistance in crisis seems crucial. In the countries of focus, social assistance doesn’t yet perform its full potential for persons in need of protection (persons with vulnerabilities and refugees alike). The European temporary protection directive was a major step forward, in comparison to pre-existing law and practice for refugees, and should be seen as an opportunity to push for better application of the Geneva convention and its translation in social services throughout Europe.


5. Considering vulnerability from the outset

We also explored to what extent systems and humanitarian responses are inclusive of persons living in situations of vulnerability. In the initial months of the response, blanket coverage was not sufficiently used to identify vulnerabilities (at individual level), address them (in the response) and ensure that the social protection system was equipped to continue to respond to specific needs over  the long term.  To this extend, stronger collaboration between the protection cluster and the cash working group is encouraged. In thinking about shock responsive social protection, it is important to remember that social assistance systems are designed to address loss of income and provide protection in situation of vulnerability. Therefore, going forward, when establishing linkages between a response and social protection systems, a more granular understanding of the scope and impact of categorical schemes and of social care services needs to happen.


6. Linking goes beyond cash

Finally, cash transfers will not be a long-term all-encompassing solution for the vast majority of Ukrainians, regardless of where they wish to stay.  Active labour market programmes (as a component of social protection) deserve more attention going forward. They are not yet a central feature of the package of services for displaced Ukrainians and refugees in host  countries. Investments will need to happen to provide meaningful and decent work to persons affected by the conflict. In host countries, there may be a risk that Ukrainians return to informal and seasonal labour as was the case prior to the crisis, without fully benefiting from social protection mechanisms. This can be supported by ensuring portability of social benefits across social protection systems across Europe.    

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
  • Labour market / employment programmes
    • Active labour market programmes / Productive inclusion
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Programme design
  • Programme implementation
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Adaptive social protection
  • Shock-responsive social protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Humanitarian–social protection nexus
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • Ukraine
The views presented here are the author's and not's