Strengthening social contracts in South Asia in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis: the adequacy of social protection responses in the short term and the future role of universal social protection


The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the weaknesses of social protection systems across South Asia. Most high-income countries have been able to fall back on modern, universal social security systems—complemented by innovative emergency schemes—to deliver a fiscal stimulus and protect most families affected by the crisis from destitution. In contrast, most South Asian countries have entered the crisis with social protection systems that are immature and truncated at best, offering limited poverty-targeted programmes to the poorest members of society alongside more generous protection—often through social insurance—to formal workers. Informal workers who did not qualify for poverty-targeted programmes and were not covered by social insurance schemes were excluded from social protection systems entirely: they are the ‘missing middle’. As a consequence of these weak systems, most South Asian countries have had to rely on emergency programmes that have faced many operational challenges in providing adequate support to those affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Given this broader picture, it is important to answer some questions: To what extent have existing social protection responses succeeded in tackling the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 crisis? To what extent have the shortcomings of the responses and the severity of the crisis been exacerbated due to structural issues that have hindered the development of strong and inclusive social contracts in South Asian countries? And, most importantly, to what extent can universal transfers enhance the shock-responsiveness of existing social protection systems while also strengthening social contracts in South Asia? 

To address these crucial questions, UNICEF’s Social Protection Specialist for South Asia, Mr. Abdul Alim has examined the structural deficiencies in social cohesion that characterise South Asian societies. IPC-IG coordinator, Mr. Fábio Veras then presented the IPC-IG’s preliminary findings on the core epidemiological and macroeconomic impacts that the COVID-19 crisis is expected to have on the South Asian region, and on the extent to which short-term social protection responses deployed in the region can be considered adequate to their contexts. Finally, Development Pathways Senior Social Policy Specialist & CEO, Mr. Stephen Kidd, presented the findings of their recently-released investment case for universal cash transfers in South Asia, discussing its potential advantages, expected impacts, possible funding mechanisms and the extent to which this could be an opportunity to strengthen social contracts in South Asian countries.



Abdul Alim, UNICEF Regional Social Policy Advisor for South Asia

Fabio Veras, Research Coordinator, IPC-IG

Stephen Kidd, Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways



Louise Moreira Daniels, Chief of Social Policy at UNICEF Sri Lanka


This was the second 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. Also, this was the seventeenth session of the “Social protection responses to COVID-19” webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IGGIZ, and DFAT in collaboration with the 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 the future webinars.