Social protection systems not only provide a safety net for individuals; they can also help deal with crises affecting society as a whole | D+C

When it comes to mitigating the causes of displacement and responding to displacement situations, social protection systems can make a significant difference. Better coordination is needed at the interfaces of humanitarian aid, development cooperation and peacebuilding.

In late 2020, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide was again higher than at any other time in the agency’s history. Displacement poses challenges, and to enable an appropriate response, the international community has agreed on the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus (HDP Nexus). The guiding idea is to link humanitarian aid, development cooperation and peacebuilding more closely.

The UN Global Compact on Refugees, adopted in 2018, supports this approach. It distributes responsibilities more equitably within the international community. A key aspect is to create longer-term prospects for local people and refugees in often very poor host areas, rather than meeting their needs through parallel systems.

There is a need to intensify efforts through better social protection systems. For different states to cope with poverty, conflict and crisis, government departments need to work better together to design and implement sustainable responses. Adaptive social protection is a promising approach that is gaining increasing attention. One of the reasons is that, in the Covid-19 crisis, pre-established social protection systems have proven to be crucial in supporting a wide variety of population groups.

Protecting people from poverty and humanitarian crises

“Social protection” includes policies and programs designed to ensure that people do not suffer from poverty or social exclusion. The focus is on vulnerable groups. Social protection systems offer support to individuals, for example in the event of illness or unemployment. However, they can also be useful in collective crises. In the event of a disaster, for example, a government may relax the eligibility rules of an existing social benefit scheme. Another option is to increase the level of support in times of crisis. If the systems are able to adapt to a changing environment, it is called adaptive social protection.

Adaptive social protection systems can reduce poverty, reduce inequalities and protect people from the consequences of crises. In countries of origin, fully functioning social protection systems thus contribute to reducing the root causes of displacement. In host countries, however, the big challenge is to extend social protection systems to enable them to serve newly arrived displaced people. Especially in low- and middle-income host countries, resources tend to be limited. Often they are not even enough for local populations in need.

On the other hand, statehood tends to be stronger where people have the support of social protection systems (see Henning Melber on our D+C/E+Z platform).

The unequal international distribution of refugees adds to the problems. Rich donor countries tend to receive a much lower share than developing countries. Moreover, they do not always respect the 1951 Refugee Convention – just think of the debate on the rejection of asylum seekers at the external borders of the EU (see interview with Gerald Knaus on our platform D+C/ E+Z).

As a result, rich industrialized countries find themselves accused of double standards. At the same time, governments in developing countries run considerable political and economic risks when they accept refugees.

International actors, including the World Bank and UNHCR as well as several donor countries, are increasingly focusing on adaptive social protection systems. The prerequisites are that the State concerned is not a party to the conflict and grants access to social protection services without discrimination. Scarce resources will generally be distributed more cost-effectively if existing national systems are used for displaced people. Creating parallel systems is normally more expensive. In addition, the use of a single system facilitates the long-term integration of newcomers.

Linking social protection to humanitarian aid

When host countries are overburdened, stronger social protection systems are a paramount requirement and deserve international support. To provide needs-based assistance to more people, the foundation of the system must be strong. In turn, an effective system can help mitigate the causes of displacement. It will also facilitate the cooperation of many different parties involved in providing support. Donors can provide funding, for example, while national agencies take care of registration and data management. An EU-funded program working in this direction in Turkey currently assists more than 1.5 million refugees per month.

For a social protection system to work well for forcibly displaced people, it needs to be tailored to different target groups with differing needs. Contracts with financial service providers, for example, should be designed to allow for flexible upsizing and downsizing of disbursements. Programs should also clearly specify what proof of identity is required to receive benefits and what alternatives are acceptable when people have lost these documents. Accessibility matters too. More than half of all refugees are hosted in urban areas, often in informal settlements. Local authorities and international agencies often find it difficult to get in touch with them.

Social, political and economic conditions vary considerably from country to country. The devil is in the details. However, if actors take into account political-economic circumstances and manage to build bridges between different stations, sectors and systems, adaptive social protection systems can help reduce the causes and consequences of long-term displacement.


UNHCR Global Trends – Forced Displacement in 2020:

Preventing crises, creating opportunities, protecting people – summary of the report of the Commission on the root causes of displacement

Maren Suchta-Platzmann is a political scientist and works as an advisor on social protection issues for GIZ. The two authors express their personal points of view here.

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Amedee Schmitz is a social scientist specializing in international migration and forced displacement. He works as a travel advisor for GIZ.

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Joel C. Hicks