The COVID-19 pandemic intensified many economic and social challenges across the world. The rising number of countries that have adopted social protection responses to the pandemic has given us many opportunities to learn from shared experience, but also to recognize the potential of social protection and turn these measures into systemic approaches that better prepare us for future crises.
The webinar that took place on the 9th of July, entitled ‘The road to recovery’, engaged UN thought-leaders on social protection in a conversation about what recovery will look like and what role the UN should play in shifting the paradigm to mobilise support for universal social protection. This webinar was organised by the training centre of the International Labour Organization (ICT-ILO) in partnership with the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
The panellists were asked to discuss three main questions: ‘How can we work together to ensure that the unexpected momentum on social protection is not lost?’, ‘How can we coordinate behind a common agenda, capitalising on what we have learned from this crisis so that we can be better prepared for future shocks?’ and ‘What challenges lie ahead as we edge towards the road to recovery?’. This webinar featured expert presentations by Shahra Razavi, Director, Social Protection Department, International Labour Organization (ILO), Natalia Winder-Rossi, Chief of Social Policy, UNICEF, Benjamin Davis, Strategic Programme Leader, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Sarah Laughton, Chief of Social Protection, World Food Programme (WFP). Costanza de Toma, Programme Officer, from ITC-ILO moderated the discussion. *
To watch the recording of the webinar, click here.
*Please note that the content below is not an exact transcription of what was said by speakers but a general summary.
How can we work together to ensure that the unexpected momentum on social protection is not lost?
Shahra Razavi – The COVID-19 crisis, even more than other recent crises, has highlighted the need for countries to have strong social protection systems in place before they are needed. With a potential climate crisis around the corner, many different countries and decision makers have an opportunity to learn from the measures they are now taking and become better prepared for the upcoming challenges.
Even though there has been a considerable increase in expenditure towards social protection during the pandemic, there is a common worry among experts that it will be followed by calls for increased austerity, especially in developing countries. The challenge is in preventing this call. We have a chance to turn the measures taken in response to the pandemic into permanent and institutionalised social protection.
History teaches us that countries that have strong social protection systems benefit economically. One way to strengthen these systems is through the mobilization of significant fiscal resources and, to achieve that, we may need to use progressive income and wealth taxes. For countries with less capability to expand their fiscal resources, global support should be offered. Beyond increasing our fiscal capacity, we also need to expand our states’ administrative capacity if we want to implement a successful social protection programme.
Natalia Winder-Rossi – There is currently a lot of excitement around the fact that governments are accepting the important role of social protection. Unfortunately, most measures had a predefined end in sight. Discovering ways to keep the momentum is very important and so is learning from our current situation.
The socio-economic situation created by the pandemic has the possibility of having long-term impact on the lives of children. Governments are being asked to do a lot more in terms of social protection while in the middle of a recession and with smaller fiscal space. It is evident that governments will need to make difficult choices and it is important to monitor whether or not these choices will impact children and vulnerable people negatively. We should think about what viable options we can put forward, and how to better engage with partners including the private sector to broaden the capacity of financing for these programmes.
In this context, UNICEF is trying to ensure that its advocacy for better and inclusive programmes that focus on children’s rights is backed up by economic data. UNICEF’s assessments of previous crises have noted that, when the social sectors are attacked, negative outcomes are exacerbated. So, although we should be happy that social protection is at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis response we should not lose the opportunity to push for further investments so that these systems can be expanded. To do this, we need to provide governments with realistic financing options.
Benjamin Davis - For a long time the world has been aware that a pandemic could come, but not many could imagine what the global impact would be. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded all of our previous challenges and the current world leadership is largely unprepared. So far, humanitarian responses have focused on providing immediate support to mitigate the socio-economic effects of the crisis. Although this is a good thing, there is a fear that as we move from crisis to recovery we might fail to address the structural issues that we’ve discovered.
During the pandemic, many vulnerabilities in the global food system have been exposed. FAO operates in rural areas where most of the work is informal. The current situation has made it increasingly clear that informality poses a threat to the stability of our food supply systems. In order to deal with some of these structural issues, social protection needs to be combined with other approaches. When talking to governments, it is important that we show that social protection provision and formal employment are more stable strategies for development and will help decrease the vulnerability of our systems when facing future crises.
Sarah Laughton - According to the WFP’s analysis of different countries’ current situations, there are a lot of new needs emerging that are not covered by existing social protection systems. For example, in many countries entirely new urban programmes have had to be designed. As Benjamin mentioned, the needs of informal workers have also become much more prominent. New needs are emerging even among people in formal employment who are unable to work. In short, people who were previously not included in social protection measures now need to be. This raises a lot of important political choices about how to respond and where to place scarce resources.
A particular challenge that the WFP has identified is in how to answer the question of how much funding should be allocated to people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic specifically as opposed to addressing pre-existing vulnerabilities which were already insufficiently addressed. As we know, vulnerabilities can overlap and compound so it is not easy to define a target for government programmes. In many countries, social protection programmes focused on targeting the poorest 10% of the population but, since the crisis, the population that can be termed ‘in need’ has significantly increased. The WFP together with governments, have been working hard on finding a balance between helping those currently most vulnerable or investing in programmes that aim to prevent further vulnerabilities in the long term.
Although very complex policy decisions need to be made, there is a lot of hope that because of the pandemic there will be opportunities to grow and maintain an increased fiscal space for these measures. We need to keep in mind two important points. First, that whatever decision is taken, food security needs to be considered explicitly. Second, that although the COVID-19 pandemic is our current focus, other crises that we were previously facing have not disappeared. It is important to remember, for example, world conflict, migration and the climate crisis. We need to use the COVID-19 crisis to build more resilient systems that help us face these current and future crises. It is a tall order but there is certainly an opportunity.
How can we coordinate behind a common agenda, capitalising on what we have learned from this crisis so that we can be better prepared for future shocks?
Benjamin Davis - Every UN agency focuses on its own constituency by definition. FAO specifically needs to focus on the ministries of agriculture and other main partners to ensure social protection is seen as an important tool to maintain food security and economic recovery in agriculture. That being said, agencies need to be able to work together without fighting for space and resources with the same unique objective - ensuring social protection is part of a long term vision response.
Natalia Winder-Rossi - There is currently a strong need to innovate due to the pandemic. Agencies need to think about what existing partners can do to help and how partnerships can be broadened. Although working together is important, UN agencies alone do not have enough capacity for the size of the challenge we are currently facing.
Shahra Razavi - There are certain things most UN agencies can agree on, such as the need for decreasing labour informality. Many things are affected when work is not formal: children’s access to education, sustainable access to food etc. There is a lot of potential after the pandemic to argue for the importance of social protection. Employers, for example, have seen that social protection is a positive thing and can provide business continuity during times of crisis. It is not going to happen overnight but we need to reinforce the social insurance responsibility of employers and the private sector. We cannot entirely rely on taxes. We need to use the fact that there is currently recognition of the benefits of social protection.
UN agencies have been talking among themselves and that is very important. We have mechanisms that allow coordination like SPIAC-B and we need to make use of them.
Sarah Laughton - One practical thing UN agencies could do would be to agree on a collective definition of the problem. We need to think about what impact COVID-19 is having on each individual country, who it is affecting and what the priorities are. Instead of each agency offering their preferred solution, we need to understand and agree on the problem first.
We have frameworks in place to support cohesive action such as the Social Protection Floor Initiative in the USP 2030. These frameworks articulate a common vision to which we can contribute. That is a good start and COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of that vision.
What challenges lie ahead as we edge towards the road to recovery?
Sarah Laughton - As organisations, we need to think about how we can help capitalise on lessons learned during this response. One of the main lessons we have learned is that governments are crucial. This year the WFP has achieved an unprecedented number of beneficiaries (130 million), but the key is to help governments achieve their own social protection goals. We need to help governments operate independently from any WFP operations.
An important lesson we learned is that preparedness makes crisis responses easier. If we had been more prepared before COVID-19, it would have made a big difference. Humanitarian systems tend to want to do focus responses to specific cases. But maybe we need to change that.
Natalia Winder-Rossi - It has always been challenging to convince governments that social protection is a good idea. Now that opinions have changed, we need to take advantage of that. UNICEF accepts that governments’ responses, even when imperfect, are more likely to be successful than the ones done by international organisations. We can work with them and help them increase their reach. Also, in the UN system, we have a lot of skills but our responses would benefit from working with community leaders who are innovating out of need to help provide social protection to their people. We can help elevate their work.
Benjamin Davis - We need to change some of the programmes that we are putting forward. With the current crisis, the needs of certain populations like migrants and informal workers have become clearer. Benjamin agrees that ultimately, to get impact at a large scale, UN agencies need to help the state. There is also a need to move closer to civil society. We need to think about the constraints that states face in terms of capacity and institutions before we build systems to make them as efficient as possible.
The webinar concluded with an interesting Q&A session, accessible here.
This was the final webinar of a series of four live webinars within the framework of the International Training Centre of the ILO’s online course on E-Coaching on Social Protection: Towards responsive Systems. The course provided comprehensive information and analysis of the social protection response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, this was the twenty-first webinar of the “Social protection responses to COVID-19” webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IG, GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and the Australia Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) collaboration with the socialprotection.org platform, and in cooperation with partners from different organisations. Join our online community ''Social protection responses to COVID-19 [Task force]'' to learn more about the initiative and future webinars.