The webinar Profiles of the social protection systems of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan prior to COVID-19 and snapshots of their responses to the pandemic was the fourth event of the Social Protection in South Asia series. It took place on 20 August, 2020, and was jointly organised by the IPC-IG and UNICEF. The webinar was moderated by Nienke Voppen (UNICEF Afghanistan) who was joined by presenters Usha Mishra (UNICEF Nepal), Louise Moreira Daniels (UNICEF Sri Lanka), Isabela Franciscon and Betariz Burattini (both IPC-IG).
It summarised the findings of five comparative reports on the social protection landscape in South Asia that were authored by the IPC-IG in collaboration with the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia and Country Offices. Speakers discussed the key takeaways and cross-cutting themes from the five reports for Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan and gave snapshots of these countries’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis (these responses will be analysed in a forthcoming IPC-IG – UNICEF policy brief). Lastly, the webinar offered insights into priorities for the social protection systems of Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan moving forward and highlighted important parts of UNICEF’s agenda addressing structural and circumstantial challenges in their social protection landscapes.
Nepal: a rights-based, universal approach to social protection
Presentations were kicked off by Usha Mishra who summarised some of the most pertinent features of Nepal’s social protection system and gave insights into the social protection response to COVID-19 in the country. A recurring point throughout the analysis of legal, social-expenditure-related, and programme design aspects of Nepal’s social protection system was a push towards universalisation of the system.
Starting with the 2015 constitution, social protection was enshrined as an enforceable right in Nepal. While the 2018 Social Security Act defines some cross-cutting operational features that should apply to all social protection programmes, Nepal has shifted towards a social protection system relying heavily on subsidiary government units. This means that much of the implementation of social protection programmes is decentralised and carried out by state governments. At the same time, this requires adequate capacity building and coordination between stakeholders and programmes, a process that is proving challenging.
Nepal mobilises the highest tax revenues relative to GDP in the region and has seen increasing expenditures across sectors in the past decade. However, there are still important avenues for improvement that should be considered, such as a more progressive health expenditure and higher government financial ownership of social policies as a large share of expenditure is donor-financed.
The trend of universal access to social protection for vulnerable groups is also reflected in the design of flagship social assistance programmes in Nepal. In this regard, possible efficiency gains lie with improving the regularity and reliability of cash payments, linking to complementary interventions through Cash+ initiatives and rolling out an integrated management information system (MIS).
Such an MIS could be informed by recent findings of a UNICEF survey conducted on the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on livelihoods in Nepal. This survey noted a significant downward shift of the income distribution with 35% of respondents reporting complete loss of their income. While most coping strategies involved borrowing funds, about a fifth of respondents also reported having access to government assistance, mostly in the form of in-kind relief packages. A follow-up survey round conducted in July yielded the reassuring finding that structural problems in beneficiaries accessing their benefits had mostly been resolved. Lastly, Usha highlighted the importance of adapting flagship programmes to support local-level responses to the crisis.
Sri Lanka: a vigorous crisis response
At this point, Isabela Franciscon took over and delved right into a characterisation of Sri Lanka’s social protection system. Starting with legal aspects, Sri Lanka is a signatory to all nine core human rights instruments on social protection and child rights, however, the constitution only defines access to social protection as a policy principle, not an enforceable right as is the case with Nepal. Furthermore, there is a lack of cross-cutting, statutory legislation coordinating child rights, they are currently established by a fragmented set of laws. Similarly, two thirds of social protection programmes in the country still lack dedicated regulatory frameworks.
Regarding social expenditure, Isabela noted that there might be space for efficiency gains for the existing programmes and scope for an expansion of fiscal space through increased tax revenues which are currently the lowest in the region. Constant improvement of the social protection system, she furthermore highlighted, would require evidence from rigorous impact evaluations that are still sparse in Sri Lanka. These could provide an evidence base on the mostly multi-type programmes currently available in the country and potentially uncover a need for further expansion of the system. An example of what could be included is child grant programmes.
The fact that Sri Lanka had a vigorous and timely response to the current crisis proves that its social protection system is adaptive and has the capacity for amendment and expansion. Programmes expanded vertically, increasing benefit values to existing beneficiaries, and horizontally, extending coverage to new beneficiaries, these measures doubled the social protection coverage during the crisis.
In order to avoid high administrative costs and merely ad-hoc strategies in pursuit of mitigating adversity, Sri Lanka would now need to integrate new beneficiaries into the mainstream social protection system. An important step for this would be the inception of an integrated information system reducing exclusion and paving the way to cover the structural gaps of the pre-COVID landscape. One possible way of reaching a high number of beneficiaries, specifically children that, so far, lack initiatives directly targeted at them, would be the introduction of a (universal) child benefit in Sri Lanka.
The case for lifecycle transfers in Sri Lanka
Louise Moreira Daniels complemented these remarks with her own experiences as UNICEF Sri Lanka’s Chief of Social Policy. She started by highlighting that, while poverty rates were quite low prior to the crisis, three quarters of the population were living on low and insecure incomes making them vulnerable to the COVID-shock brought about by a very stringent lockdown. A telephone survey conducted by the Country Office uncovered that 39% of the population lost their entire income in April. According to simulations, a further 30% of households are likely to see losses of income in the near future.
The remarkably speedy and comprehensive emergency response given by the government is thus supporting about two thirds of households in the country with almost universal coverage among the poorest 10%. However, lockdowns impinged on livelihoods across the income distribution with concerning exclusion rates of 20% in the 3rd decile and even more in the middle of the income distribution. This “missing middle”, (marginally) non-poor beneficiaries not covered by social protection, pose a political risk and important call-to-action for social protection in Sri Lanka.
In order to provide comprehensive coverage across the lifecycle, Louise thus proposed a set of (universal) transfers benefitting children, the disabled and those of old age that could be introduced at a cost of 1.51% of GDP per year. This measure would aid the economy in its recovery, eventually even boosting growth past the counterfactual scenario without lifecycle transfers. It would also build trust in the government, and, most importantly, enhance the wellbeing of society’s most vulnerable members.
Afghanistan: a social protection system in transformation
Beatriz Burattini brought the webinar to an end with reflections on the social protection system of Afghanistan which is currently in the process of transforming its institutional framework with support from the UNICEF Country Office and IPC-IG.
The Child Rights Protection Law of 2019 and the Social Protection Law of 2018 have been recent additions to Afghanistan’s legal framework on social protection, the latter defines governance principles for social protection in the country. However, Beatriz pointed out that there is a need for elaboration of a comprehensive Social Protection Policy with buy-in from sectoral stakeholders. This policy would establish the cross-cutting operational features of social protection programmes in Afghanistan and allow for consolidation and better coordination within the sector. Furthermore, there is scope for better aligning the programme design of the Martyrs and Disabled Pension Programme (MDPP; which is Afghanistan’s sole flagship programme with a statutory, regulatory framework) with a human-rights-based approach to social protection.
Regarding expenditure on social sectors, Afghanistan’s ‘on budget’ figures are overall at the lower end of the South Asian countries, with a commendable exception to the education sector where ‘on budget’ figures are close to what is recommended by UNESCO 2030 Framework for Action. However, given that the country is in a state-reconstruction stage, ‘off budget’ expenditure should be considered to provide a better picture, especially regarding health and social assistance. The country is largely donor-dependent with a structural revenue gap of over 400%.
Afghanistan’s non-contributory social protection landscape gravitates toward initiatives combining social assistance with capacity building initiatives and oftentimes employ a grassroots development approach in which community resources are promoted and leveraged. One of these initiatives, National Solidarity Programme, predecessor of the Citizens’ Charter programme currently in action, showed promising, long-term impacts on a number of education, health and gender-related outcomes.
At the same time, current initiatives oftentimes do not provide dedicated coverage of large parts of the vulnerable population against lifecycle contingencies. For example, Beatriz highlighted a lack of programmes providing explicit and large-scale coverage to children or pregnant and lactating women. Afghanistan’s social protection system would thus benefit from considering the launch of a streamlined, ‘simple’ intervention targeting households or individuals directly, an intervention for which there is ample evidence of best practices from South Asia and beyond.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghanistan saw a horizontal expansion of the MDPP and additional funds being given to the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project by the World Bank. In a joint effort between the government and its development partners from the humanitarian, financial, and private sector, Afghanistan furthermore established emergency in-kind transfers to some vulnerable groups. Unlike the examples of Nepal and Sri Lanka discussed earlier in the webinar, Beatriz pointed out that Afghanistan does not just face the challenge of covering the “missing middle” of (previously) non-poor beneficiaries affected by the crisis, but even coverage of the most vulnerable cannot be taken for granted.
A united challenge and opportunity for all three countries featured on this webinar would be the establishment of an integrated information system. This, together with new initiatives championed by the social protection sector, could improve the shock-responsiveness of the social protection system, integrate new beneficiaries into the mainstream landscape, and pave the way from mitigation to recovery and toward a system that is consistent with a right-based notion of social protection.
The presentations were followed by a lively Q&A session that can be accessed here.
This was the fourth webinar of the Series ''Social Protection in South Asia – the landscape before the Covid-19, and a snapshot into responses to the crisis and the paths ahead'', jointly organised by the IPC-IG, UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA), and Country Offices.
Social spending in South Asia: an overview of government expenditure on health, education and social assistance. Forthcoming publication, but a presentation with preliminary findings was delivered as part of webinar 3 of this series.
Overview of non-contributory social protection programmes in South Asia from a child and equity lens. Main paper still to be published, but One Pagers on general findings and child-sensitive analysis are already available, and a presentation on preliminary findings was delivered as part of webinar 1 of this series.
Gender and social protection in South Asia: an assessment of the design of non-contributory programmes. Both the Research Report and the One Pager are already available, and a presentation on preliminary findings was delivered as part of webinar 1 of this series.
Social protection legislative frameworks in South Asia from a child-rights perspective. Forthcoming publication, but a presentation with preliminary findings was delivered as part of webinar 3 of this series.
Evidence linking social protection programmes in South Asia with child poverty, economic growth and improvement in human development. Forthcoming publication, but a presentation with preliminary findings was delivered as part of webinar 3 of this series.
Socio-Economic impacts of COVID-19, policy responses and the missing middle in South Asia. Forthcoming publication, but a presentation with preliminary findings was delivered as part of webinar 2 of this series.
Kidd, S., Moreira Daniels, L., et al. (2020). “Tackling the COVID-19 economic crisis in Sri Lanka: Providing universal, lifecycle social protection transfers to protect lives and bolster economic recovery.” UNICEF Sri Lanka Working Paper.