The dramatic increase in the number of countries that have adopted social protection measures in response to the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to bridge the existing coverage gaps by enshrining these measures into systemic approaches going beyond mere ad hoc crisis responses. However, the pandemic has also exacerbated pre-existing barriers that limited the inclusion of rural populations. Reaching rural populations has required, and will continue to require, innovative and adapted social protection approaches to respond to their needs.

This blog post summarises the webinar “Reaching rural areas in the social protection response to COVID-19: opportunities and challenges”, held on July 28. This was the twenty-fourth webinar of the “Social Protection responses to COVID-19 webinar series” organised by This webinar, co-organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), provided a platform to share different experiences on how social protection can be best leveraged as a tool to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 for rural communities, as well as challenges and opportunities for building back better in terms of longer-term social protection responses, enhancing coordination between social protection and agriculture.

The discussion was moderated by Ana Ocampo, from FAO, with contributions by Cecilia Mbaka, Head of the National Social Protection Secretariat in Kenya; Reema Nanavaty, Director of the Self Employed Women's Association's (SEWA) in India; Mounir Cherif, Social Protection Expert in Tunisia, and Professor Lixia Tang, Deputy Dean, College of International Development and Global Agriculture at China Agricultural University. They were joined by Kroum Markov, Social Protection Policy Specialist at ILO, as discussant.

You can watch the recording here and see the presentation here.


The specific challenges facing rural populations 

COVID-19 containment measures are particularly difficult for the rural poorest and most vulnerable populations, whose livelihoods, very much linked with food systems, have been tremendously impacted. Informality is widespread in rural areas, in particular for women, and closely intertwined with poverty. Many of the world’s rural populations depend on public spaces and movement for their livelihoods, including seasonal agricultural work and travelling to markets to sell or buy products and/or inputs, etc. When restrictions are implemented that require reduced mobility, many abruptly lose their source of livelihood. Social protection schemes can play a decisive role in protecting lives and livelihoods by securing incomes, ensuring access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food, providing support with childcare, insuring against sickness or death risks and facilitating access to health care. If implemented in conjunction with productive and economic interventions, social protection can support farmers, herders, fisher folk and foresters to continue producing during or after the crisis to ensure food security for themselves and others.


The COVID-19 response in rural areas: experiences and lessons from four countries

Cecilia Mbaka addressed Kenya’s social protection response to the pandemic and the challenges encountered while adapting economic inclusion programmes to drive COVID-19 response efforts in rural areas. In Kenya, people living in poverty (36.5 % of the population) reside predominantly in rural areas and are particularly exposed to cyclical climatic shocks and other types of risks. The movement restrictions imposed by the Government are bound to exacerbate poverty due to job losses in the agricultural sector, which is the main livelihood source for the rural communities, and to disrupt food production by smallholder farmers who provide 80 % of food consumed in Kenya. To this extent, the Government together with partners has established an eight-point Economic Stimulus Programme worth USD$53.7 million, including the following major economic interventions:

  • Free health services for COVID-19 patients in all rural and urban areas;
  • A fund to cushion from the impact of the pandemic vulnerable households and seasonal youth employment programmes;
  • E-vouchers of USD$30 million for the supply of farm inputs tailored to 200,000 small holder farmers;
  • Investments in the flower and horticultural sector to ensure continued employment;
  • Particular focus to the most vulnerable communities and groups: children, teenagers, elderly and citizens with lifestyle diseases as well as counties with highest prevalence malnutrition;
  • Additional transfers planned in synergies with UNICEF in rural and urban areas.

Ms. Mbaka highlighted six challenges faced by the Government in time of the pandemic crisis that may serve as valuable lessons also for other countries:

  1. Inadequate spending on social protection, only 0.4 % of GDP on social assistance, to cater for in need.
  2. Weak coordination mechanisms between stakeholders;
  3. Lack of a social registry  resulting in response delays by the government and partners;
  4. Lack of harmonization transfers value provided by different actors;
  5. Low health insurance coverage – four out of every five Kenyans have no access to medical insurance with disparities of 12% and 27% in rural and urban areas respectively;
  6. High inclusion and exclusion errors of social assistance programmes leaving the majority of poor and marginalised people vulnerable to shocks.

Reema Nanavaty from SEWA in India provided the citizen’s perspective, in particular of self-employed women in the informal economy. The COVID-19 response has been largely urban-centred, whereas rural areas only started attracting the attention of public authorities when migrants started returning to them. However, the pandemic has dramatically affected rural populations.

  • 43% of the informal workers households have lost their livelihoods.
  • Additionally, 8 out of 10 households have not been able to manage the household expenses like rents and utilities and over 43% had to reduce their food intake to just one meal a day.
  • Furthermore, it has been observed that less than 34% of the members have received any kind of cash benefit from the Government – and one of the important reasons for this being that a large segment of informal workers are unregistered – thereby putting them outside the purview of Government relief packages.

In order to address these challenges and build the resilience of these poor informal workers converting their livelihoods to sustainable ones, SEWA has immediately started providing its members with trainings to engage in new income generating activities. One example is SEWA members’ organic and traditional food-processing centre KAMALA that has been able to train about 500 women into making nutritious food, dry snacks.

Social protection measures can offset the loss and damages of COVID-19. However, measures are taking longer to reach rural areas. Truly ensuring stable access to income, through universal basic income should be considered. Social protection measures should be designed in an integrated way in order to promote livelihoods, for instance by also ensuring access to finance and markets. The pandemic has provided opportunities to roll out comprehensive universal social protection for all rural workers meeting the economic and ecological needs of rural households, and to widely implement recommendations made by the Global Commission on the Future of Work.

Mounir Cherif presented the social security schemes in the agricultural sector in Tunisia and the additional measures that have been taken to face the pandemic in rural areas, pointing out the barriers that rural people face. According to the Tunisian law, there are four types of social insurance schemes covering the sector: i) agricultural employees (RSA); ii) enhanced agricultural wage earners (RSA); iii) agricultural self-employed persons (RNS); and iv) smallholders and small-scale fishers (Act 2002-32) lump-sum contribution according to their specific contributory capacity. However, the coverage rate is very low, leaving a large part of agriculture workers unprotected and vulnerable to any potential shock. To this extent, Mounir Cherif pointed out several barriers faced by rural people in “normal times” such as limited awareness or knowledge of social security programmes and their associated benefits or the little value associated. The Tunisian government adopted some social protection measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic COVID-19, as follows:

  • One-off cash transfer of TND50 ($17) to the beneficiaries of the Programme National d'Aide aux Familles Nécessiteuses (PNAFN);
  • One-off cash transfer of TND200 ($68) to 623,000 households working in the informal sector, who are not covered by any social assistance programme and vulnerable to shocks (households registered in the social security system with low-cost healthcare card);
  • One-off cash transfer TND200 ($68) to unemployed and certain categories of self-employed workers;
  • One-off cash transfer TND200 ($68) to the employees of companies concerned by partial or total confinement conditional to their affiliation to the social security scheme and payment of contributions for the 4th quarter of 2019 or 1st quarter 2020.

However, in order to reach rural populations and ensure longer-term support, some challenges still need to be addressed through innovative and adapted approaches. This includes lifting administrative barriers that pose a serious threat to the expansion of social protection coverage, reaching out to additional beneficiaries, and investing more in social protection.

Professor Lixia Tang introduced the main actions of the Chinese government to help farmers fight against the pandemic:

  1. Ensure the basic livelihoods of people living in poverty in rural areas. There are two formal categories in China: i) registered impoverished households identified by the Government in 2015; and ii) low-income families with an average income lower than the minimum wage. During the pandemic, families of these two categories can get from 1,000 to 10,000 RMB as a one-time living allowance. Additionally, the Government has suspended the withdrawal of families and included more eligible families in these categories. China has also provided one-off cash transfers to 60,000 unemployed migrant workers due to lockdown. Moreover, the central Government has issued two batches of relief funds of 156 billion RMB to provinces.
  2. Support farmers’ employment and entrepreneurship. China has launched public works programmes, provided subsidies to enterprises that recruit new employees, and introduced measures to encourage enterprises to retain workers. Subsidies have also been provided to entrepreneurs returning home.
  3. Support agricultural production and reduce food losses. Measures have been put in place to guarantee the supply of agricultural inputs and smooth circulation of agricultural products of daily necessities through opening “green channels”. Subsidies and interest discounts have been granted to qualified processing, sales, and logistics companies to expedite the purchase of fresh agricultural products. Public procurement of agricultural produce has also been scaled up and e-commerce and live broadcast leveraged to link farmers to markets.


Key take-away and lessons learnt

As Kroum Markov emphasised, the current crisis represented a formidable opportunity to think out of the box in adequately designing responses to expand social protection systems in rural areas. Rural populations face the same risks as urban ones but their livelihoods are different, in particular the terms of employment, their exposure to risks, or access to public service. This requires specific attention. In the face of COVID-19, rural populations are at particular risk to lose their livelihoods and fall into or deeper into poverty. This is the right time to action moving away from the regressive, “poor vs non-poor” opposition of targeting and exclusion towards more comprehensive and longer terms systems based on universalism and entitlements protecting everyone, including rural population, against vulnerability across the lifecycle.


The webinar concluded with a Q&A session, accessible here. You can also join the Q&A discussion here



Allieu, A. M., & Ocampo, A. (2019). On the path to universal coverage for rural populations: removing barriers of access to social protection. Rome: FAO.

FAO. (2017). FAO's Social Protection Framework. Enhancing food security, nutrition and rural development outcomes for all. Rome: FAO.

​FAO. (2020). Social Protection and COVID-19 response in rural areas. Rome: FAO. Available at

​FAO. (2020b). COVID-19 and rural poverty: Supporting and protecting the rural poor in times of pandemic. Rome: FAO. Available at

ILO. (2017). World Social Protection Report 2017-19.Geneva: ILO.

ILO (2020). Social protection responses to COVID-19 crisis around the world. Available at

ILO. (2020). Social protection responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in developing countries: Strengthening resilience by building universal social protection. Policy Brief. Geneva: ILO. Available at

Nanavaty R. (2020). Pandemic and Future of Work - Rehabilitating informal workers livelihoods post-pandemic. SEWA. India.



This blog post is also part of the responses from Social Protection to COVID-19 webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by IPC-IGGIZ on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) of Germany, and the collaboration of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Government of Australia (DFAT) with the platform, and in cooperation with partners from different organizations.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
    • Subsidies
      • Service subsidies
        • Health benefits / reduced medical fee
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Expenditure and financing
    • Governance and coordination
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Agriculture and rural development
  • Food and nutritional security
  • Health
  • Labour market / employment
    • Informality
  • Kenya
  • Tunisia
  • China
  • India
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's