As most social protection programmes have been conceived as instruments for reducing chronic poverty and/or providing support across the life cycle, risk management is one of the main functions of social protection systems. While all social protection programmes are geared towards addressing shocks, shock-responsive social protection focuses on those shocks that affect a considerable proportion of population simultaneously (e.g. hurricanes, floods).

Social protection has the potential to foster recovery and increase households’ resilience to shocks when provided on a regular and predictable basis. Another merit of social protection in emergency response is that it can help to ensure that poor and vulnerable households impacted by shocks are not pushed further into chronic poverty (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019b). Hence, using social protection systems for emergency response provides an opportunity for governments and other actors to better meet the needs of shock-affected populations, bridging the response–recovery gap. This blog will explore different aspects and benefits of using social protection programmes during emergencies in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).


Emergency response in Latin America and the Caribbean

In regions exposed to increasing frequency and magnitude of natural disasters, social protection systems can support shock response (Oxford Policy Management, 2018). The number of countries using social protection systems to respond to disasters resulting from natural hazards has been rising in recent years, indicating a trend in the region. Countries like Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Mexico, El Salvador, and Dominica have all used their social protection capacity to respond to crises caused by disasters (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019b).

Natural hazards and economic shocks are the most prevalent shocks in the region. Most Caribbean economies are vulnerable to external economic shocks because they rely on North America and Europe, both for the export of goods and services and for foreign direct investment. Moreover, due to their monocultural economies, many of the Caribbean countries are exposed to international economic volatilities. When considering Latin America as a whole, most experiences of social protection responding to economic shocks stemming from the 2008/09 global financial crisis.

Regarding natural disasters, most regional experiences in the use of social protection in response to disasters involved rapid-onset shocks, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. The slow-onset shocks (e.g. drought) in the region are usually addressed only once they have reached a state of emergency and then are treated in much the same way as rapid-onset shocks. Haiti is the most affected country in the Caribbean, as 36% of the disasters in the region were there. During the last 50 years, more than 23,540,000 people were affected by disasters in the Caribbean (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019a).


System response

In the cases where social protection played an active role in the shock response, existing programmes were topped up (vertical expansions), scaled up (horizontal expansions), and existing systems and capacities were used within new programmes (piggybacking). Vertical expansion is often the preferred measure in the region because it is fast and reasonably administratively inexpensive to put in place. The disadvantage of this type of response is that it only reaches existing beneficiaries, thus excluding non-beneficiaries.

If vertical expansions lead to high levels of exclusion, they would need to be complemented with other strategies, as in the case of Dominica after Hurricane Maria in 2017, when the vertical expansion of Public Assistance Programme was complemented with a horizontal expansion, adding new beneficiaries to an existing programme or system (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019b).

Regarding the different social protection schemes used for emergency responses, cash-based social assistance is the most popular type for several reasons: it provides households decision-making power over their spending, fosters local market activity, addresses other needs such as medicines and housing repair and even has impacts on nutrition, education and gender equality (UNICEF, 2018).

Most responses to disasters in the region also involve in-kind transfers, however, very few examples of expanding already existing social protection in-kind transfer programmes, beyond the case of vertical expansion of school meals in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti in response to climate shocks. Another type of response to shocks consists of employment-related social protection programmes, which have been developed in countries like Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019b).


Social protection systems in Latin America and the Caribbean

Social protection systems in the region are, overall, ‘mature’ systems characterised by strong government leadership, an integrated system of programmes supported by established administrative systems, high levels of institutional capacity, and robust systems for informed decision making, which provide a solid base for responses to shocks to be tailored on. In the cases in which LAC social protection systems have been used to respond to emergencies, countries have relied mostly on existing systems and programmes with relatively greater coverage and stronger administrative capacity.

Nevertheless, even less mature systems have been used to respond to shocks in the region. Experience from El Salvador and Dominica show that even social protection systems that are still in the process of development can also be successfully used for shock response. The effectivity of such systems can be improved by “design tweaks“ aimed at better taking into consideration the crises that a country typically faces and building and ‘piggybacking’ on those social protection delivery systems and capacities which are most developed (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019b).

Maturity of the social protection systems and their extensive coverage underline the potential for further embedding shock response within existing social protection systems. The extensive coverage of social protection systems in many LAC countries enables substantial segments of the population to be reached during an emergency, in particular the poor and vulnerable. The rising of coverage is evident for example from that the proportion of households benefiting from conditional cash transfer programmes in LAC increased from 3.6% to 20.2% between 2000 and 2016, reaching up to approximately 130 million people.

Another regional trend which is important in this context is that there generally remains a gap between initial relief activities, which are typically intended to support affected populations for the first weeks following a shock, and early recovery and reconstruction efforts. Evidence suggests that social protection systems can be used in the different phases of the emergency response (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019b).



In LAC, governments tend to lead and (at least partially) fund the response to shocks, mainly through civil protection, with Haiti and other Caribbean countries as exceptions. Humanitarian assistance has also been an important source of funding, although there are substantial variations in the region. For example, while the whole amount of Dominica’s emergency cash transfer in response to Hurricane Maria in 2017 (vertical and horizontal expansions) was financing by WFP and UNICEF, in case of the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador, slightly less than 30% of the cash transfers provided by the Ecuadorian government to affected families were financed with aid from WFP and its donors.

There are even examples of countries whose governments fully financed the response to shocks, such as Peru’s vertical expansion of cash transfer programmes in response to the El Niño phenomenon in 2017. Nevertheless, as the frequency and magnitude of shocks increase, governments will find it increasingly difficult to cover the required resources to meet all needs when responding to a shock (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019b).



Social protection has an important role to play in shock response in LAC, as it has potential to unfold a quicker, more effective, and less costly response. Although the use of national social protection to prepare for and respond to shocks is still emerging, there are positive examples in the Caribbean as evidenced by the assistance provided to hurricane-affected households in Jamaica, Dominica, British Virgin Islands and more recently the Bahamas. In the Caribbean, the capacity to deliver social protection has been increasing, but there is a limited number of documented experiences of systematic use of social protection in responding to shocks (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019a).

To date, in case of emergency in the region, the systems and programmes have been mostly used as they were or only slightly adapted after the shocks. Nevertheless, an increasing number of countries is starting to adapt their systems to be responsive (World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management, 2019b). As the effects of the climate change accelerate, there is a need for improving the response capacity of social protection systems in the region, including system response, system preparedness, targeting and data management.


List of References

World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management (2019a). Shock-Responsive Social Protection in the Caribbean: Literature Review. Access here.

World Food Programme and Oxford Policy Management (2019b). Study on Shock-Responsive Social Protection in Latin America and the Caribbean. Access here.

Oxford Policy Management. „Shock Responsive Social Protection in Latin America and the Caribbean”, YouTube, 29 January 2018, access here. (2017). Shock Responsive Social Protection in Latin America and the Caribbean: recent regional experiences. Access here.

UNICEF (2018). Lessons on Providing Cash Transfers to Disaster Victims: A Case Study of UNICEF’s Unconditional Cash Transfer Program for Super Typhoon Yolanda Victims. Access here.

Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Programme implementation
  • Programme design
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disaster risk management / reduction
  • America
  • Latin America & Caribbean
The views presented here are the author's and not's