The COVID-19 crisis has motivated an unprecedented number of social protection measures around the world. Even though policy adjustments and innovations underway have the potential to strengthen social protection in the long run, the COVID-19 crisis is expected to reverse a decade of progress in social and economic gains, with long-term consequences for equity and growth.

The Webinar Taking stock at the one-year mark: social protection during COVID-19 and beyond, held on 25 March 2021, organised by the Overseas Development Institute, ODI and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), provided the opportunity to discuss the findings emerging from the ODI-GIZ upcoming study and wider evidence to share policy learning to date, focusing on two sets of questions. The first is the following: how well have social protection adjustments and measures taken since the onset of the crisis performed in delivering support to affected groups? What are the emerging lessons for delivering timely and adequate social protection in times of crisis and for the strengthening of adaptive social protection and preparedness for future crises? The second set is the following: is this crisis a turning point in social protection? Is it an opportunity to address gaps and inequities in existing social protection systems on a more permanent basis? And if so, what are the policy priorities for governments and partners moving forward to help enhance social protection systems?

The webinar brought together leading experts and policymakers to share their different perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis outcomes to social protection policies. Presented by Francesca Bastagli, Director for Equity and Social Policy at ODI, and facilitated by Ralf Radermacher, Head of Programme for Global Alliances for Social Protection at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, we heard from:

  • Bessie Msusa, Chief Economist in the Poverty Reduction and Social Protection Division at the Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, Malawi
  • Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant of the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection, Pakistan
  • Lynette Maart, National Director, Black Sash, South Africa
  • Ugo Gentilini, Global Lead Social Assistance, World Bank
  • Armando Barrientos, Professor of Poverty and Social Justice at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester

You can find the webinar recording here, and the presentation slides here.


Social protection responses to COVID-19 and beyond: lessons learned for adaptive social protection and future crises

The event started with the webinar’s presenter, Director for Equity and Social Policy at ODI, Francesca Bastagli’s remarks with an overview of the ODI / GIZ study on social protection measures taken since the onset of the crisis but already thinking forward. The objective of this study is to complement some ongoing efforts that are conducting more comprehensive monitoring of adjustments and evolutions of systems being implemented. Essentially, the study reviews existing evidence from several sources and dives more in-depth into specific case studies related to measures that are adopted and/or country-level case studies. The outcome of the project is twofold: understand what the evidence is around how well these adjustments are performing from the perspective of crisis response, and understand whether there is a sense that there is actual evidence or a sense of potential for these adjustments made since the onset of the crisis to address the gaps and inequities in existing systems into the mid to long term.

The project has seven primary outputs with papers focusing on diverse target groups, such as informal workers, women, urban contexts, refugees, and on cross-cutting areas such as financing with a focus on the role of international assistance, and operations, looking at the implementation and delivery of social protection systems. The framework of the project is structured as follows:

Francesca stated that the adjustments were, in many cases, not just crisis-related, but were part of existing national plans that were being adopted and implemented. In some cases, there could be seen some degree of continuity or acceleration to address some of the gaps, and in other cases, they worked as an opportunity for this to signal a turning point to social protection systems. Short-term adjustments have contributed to social protection policy and system-strengthening in a myriad of ways, such as embeddedness in national policy; coverage/adequacy gaps in longer-term; implementation & delivery capacity; financing sustainability; and social contract.



After Francesca’s remarks, Bessie Msusa offered valuable insights from the policy-making and financing perspective, as she has worked for several years with adaptive social protection, system strengthening and preparedness to shocks in Malawi. Bessie started by saying that Malawi’s government developed a master plan aiming to expand the social protection system in the country. Concerning rural social protection, the master plan increased the cash transfers for rural households for four months. For urban cash transfers, especially those targeting the informal sector, they established liaison with development partners to coordinate resource mobilisations, so the partners channelled their resources to the already existing beneficiaries in a vertical expansion. For horizontal expansion, however, there were hindrances with the execution of the programmes, since each donor has their own requirements in terms of contractual procedures, so it took them longer to implement urban cash transfers, since Malawi does not have a basket funding mechanism for social protection. Bessie concluded by affirming that what they have learnt with regards to financing is that they need to have a system in place to respond to the crisis because, despite proper adequacy in defining the criteria for targeting, they faced challenges to respond to it in a timely manner.



The webinar continued with Dr. Sania Nishtar sharing complementary policy making viewpoints from Pakistan, based on her work overseeing large-scale social protection programme delivery during and prior the COVID-19. With a population of 200 million, the informal economy in Pakistan is very large, with roughly 24 million households, so the lockdown measures affected a large segment of society. In response to that, the government of Pakistan created the Ehsaas Emergency Cash, the largest social protection programme in the country so far. It was rolled out within 10 days of the lockdown to deliver one-time emergency assistance grants. 1.23 billion U.S dollars were allocated to support more than 17 million families, which covered around 109 million people, roughly 50% of the country’s population. In terms of the execution of the Ehsaas Emergency Cash, the government made use of digital capabilities that they had developed in the year prior to the pandemic in three ways: the first was a new biometric payment system; the second was an SMS-based request seeking mechanism; and the third was a new wealth profiling data analytics mechanism.

Therefore, Pakistan combined these mechanisms to provide emergency assistance alongside the adoption of a hybrid targeting approach combining emergency assistance for the known vulnerable with demand-based assistance for the new poor. Sania provided some data on the beneficiaries, of whom 97% utilized the full amount of the benefit, and 93% spent it on food. By the end of her remarks, she stated that the COVID-19 crisis response was a watershed moment to Pakistan because it changed the way the government functions in terms of social protection. Pakistan is now revising their resource strategy on how the remit of social protection can be broadened even further to try to tackle poverty and inequity.

“It ushered in fast-track digital transformation. it made the government more agile. It made us more data-driven, experimental and ambitious. And most importantly, it boasted confidence in the government's ability to execute well at scale. It really helped to further citizen-government bond in terms of trust”. - Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant of the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection, Pakistan


South Africa

The next speaker was Lynette Maart, who offered reflections as special director of Black Sash, a leading South Africa civil society organisation that works on the advancement of social and economic rights and access to social protection. Lynette began her talk by presenting two relevant facts: South Africa is the most unequal country in the world; and prior to the pandemic, there were around 10.4 million people unemployed, a number that increased to 11 million by December 2020. These facts indicate that social protection measures are crucial for the development of the country and, before the pandemic, there were already 18 million people receiving some sort of grant, which accounted for an annual budget of 170 billion Rand. After the first lockdown in March 2020, South Africa faced a humanitarian crisis, and the government’s initial response was to distribute 1 million food parcels because it did not have a clear strategy and a policy for those between the ages of 18 to 59 who were unemployed o had little income. In April, however, the government introduced an unemployment insurance fund which would enable companies to distribute unemployment insurance benefits to workers who have lost their jobs in the pandemic, in addition to various government-granted social protection benefits with a monthly budget of about 50 billion Rand.

In terms of the COVID-19 grant, an entirely mechanised process was introduced, with various platforms for people to register. However, only 9 million people registered, with only 6 million receiving the grant. Lynette explains that the fact the process was only online, with no face-to-face contact, and that it was only in English, presented challenges for poor people in rural areas who had limited or no access to devices or internet connection, for instance. There were also problems with the monthly verification of beneficiaries against outdated databases, which prevented many from receiving the benefits, among other problems with the design of the programme. With millions of people not being able to work nor receiving cash transfer benefits, South Africa has been facing a decrease in food security and an increase in women and children going hungry. Lynette closed her presentation stating that the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed for an incentive of a basic income grant, and advocated for universal social assistance in South Africa so that people can meet their basic needs.


Implications of COVID-19 for social protection worldwide

The webinar carried on with considerations from Ugo Gentilini, who shared some thoughts on the global effort to track and analyse the adoption of social protection systems worldwide in response to the pandemic. Ugo understands the COVID-19 crisis as an amplifier of pre-existing trends, with big implications for social protection, sparking four main accelerations. The first acceleration concerns changes in labour markets, since 40% to 70% of the workforce are being affected by the pandemic, more jobs are being automated, 25% or more of workers may need to switch occupation, and over half of the informal workers reporting zero earnings in 10 out 12 major cities around the world. Hence, he believes these uncertainties and vulnerabilities in the labour market may strengthen the case for universal social protection. The second acceleration is in policy convergence, particularly around two main policies. One includes the interactions between monitoring fiscal policy, as the scale-up of social protection is in most cases not financed by higher taxes, but by monetary expansion. This means that countries have realized that they have multiple options for supporting vulnerable people directly, cementing the role of cash transfers as a generator of economic multipliers. The other policy convergence relates to connecting social assistance and insurance cash transfers, as those programs are the backbone upon which other insurance interventions can be provided, including how States can co-finance worker contributions and facilitate access to innovative schemes and savings.

Ugo goes on to the third acceleration, which is in the delivery frontier, especially in urban areas, since we have been seeing an urbanization of poverty and an urbanization of crises, even though there are challenges around making social protection an integral part of city systems for infrastructure, jobs and services. Finally, the fourth is an acceleration in the need for crisis preparedness. He takes on the experience of the climate arena, which has a high potential for improvement in the connection between early warning systems and social protection responses. Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the awareness to improvements in the connection between diagnostics and responses to crises.

“Moving forward, one way of having more objective anticipatory and adaptive responses is to better anchor the timing and magnitude of those responses to early warning systems that track, among others, pandemic risks.” - Ugo Gentilini, Global Lead Social Assistance, World Bank


Social protection in Latin America

The last panellist was Professor Armando Barrientos, who shared his expertise on many aspects of social protection systems with a focus on Latin America as a region. Armando starts by recapping the past 20 years of the region, which has had sustained investment in social assistance, particularly social pensions and conditional cash transfers, with between a quarter and a third of the population in the region being contemplated by these programmes. This also means that there’s been a huge advancement in social protection systems in terms of registry, and evaluation & monitoring.  Armando believes that such background has put Latin America in a good position to adjust to the demands of the COVID-19 crisis, enabling the governments to design and implement quick responses to the pandemic. One change is that governments have introduced short-term cash transfer benefits to populations who, although low-income, could not access pre-existing social assistance programmes, which means that there has been an expansion of social protection to informal low-income people.

On another note, Armando points out two downsides to these responses. One is that these pandemic-driven cash transfers have been applied with the intention of being short term, unlikely to be maintained in the future. The other concerns social protection for formal workers. He recalls the countries that, in the 1980s and 1990s, transformed pension systems into retirement accounts and are facing hindrances to respond to crises, as mandate savings are difficult for people to access. When addressing the future, Armando mentions that the Economic Commission for Latin America has called for Latin American countries to strengthen their welfare States and to invest in welfare States. They have also asked for a guaranteed minimum income, which is different from a universal basic income. He states these are good proposals on the table; however, he claims to be more cautious in trying to project the future when it comes to social protection.


The webinar concluded with a lively Q&A session with the participation of attendees, which you can access here.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • All programmes - General
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Programme design and implementation
  • Universal Social Protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disasters and crisis
  • Global
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's