This review looks at the alignment of humanitarian response in refugee crises with national social protection systems. It examines the experience of three countries dealing with protracted refugee situations: Turkey, Lebanon and Cameroon, and also identifies lessons from other literature.
The number of people affected by crises and disasters continues to rise, and humanitarian refugee crises are becoming more and more prolonged. This has led to the recognition of the need for a different approach to year-on-year humanitarian assistance, and specifically, of the need to bridge the humanitarian-development divide. Social protection offers a way to do this. The European Commission (ECHO, 2018: 2) defines social protection as:
a set of policies and actions that enhance the capacity of all people, but notably poor and vulnerable groups, to escape from poverty (or avoid falling into poverty), and better manage risks and shocks. In crisis or shock situations, social protection interventions are primarily a means to help meeting immediate needs and reducing mortality and human suffering.
There are a number of ways in which social protection and humanitarian responses can be linked:
a) using existing social protection programmes to prevent/manage disasters;
b) using the humanitarian response to build social protection systems, particularly in situations of extreme fragility where social protection systems are absent or very weak;
c) in situations of forced displacement, social protection can become a cornerstone of strategies to reduce vulnerability and promote self-reliance.
This review focuses on the latter, which entails the alignment of humanitarian response for refugees with national social protection systems. This has large potential benefits for national and humanitarian partners, as well as donors, including:
- use of common platforms and tools to improve transparency, efficiency and accountability;
- enhancing shock-responsiveness of national social protection systems;
- incentivising donors (through improved performance) to provide financial support and set up a more coherent, cost-effective and sustainable financing architecture.
However, there are also significant challenges, including:
- most national social safety nets are not accessible to non-nationals;
- governments rarely have capacity, tools and processes in place that can adapt to the impacts of mass displacement shocks;
- difficulties in data analysis, accountability and coordination across multiple safety nets and numerous ministries;
- differences in funding of humanitarian and government safety nets in terms of duration, political requirements, objectives and conditions.
In the context of the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis, there have been considerable innovations in social assistance interventions with regard to approaches, tools and systems. Most notably the widespread use of cash-based interventions, common vulnerability and targeting methodologies, common delivery systems and technology for identification and cash delivery. There has also been considerable progress in terms of promoting resilience among affected people. There is huge potential to implement these initiatives at scale and promote more inclusive and sustainable social protection for all.
Lessons from other literature
This review identified a number of studies making recommendations for alignment of humanitarian assistance with national social protection systems. Key among these are:
- The decision to align with national systems should not come as an afterthought, but rather should be part of an overall response strategy, starting from preparedness. Even where
the national social safety nets are weak, alignment of cash assistance – and ideally refugee inclusion – should be considered at the onset of the interventions.
- Leadership and engagement of national authorities must be the norm, not the exception. The entry point for assistance in the country should always be the national government.
- Where appropriate and possible, the existing social protection system should be used for the provision of humanitarian assistance and contribute to resilience building.
- Key preconditions for alignment are mapping the access of non-nationals to basic rights, such as documentation, access to land and employment. In situations where refugee rights
are restricted alignment must be preceded and/or accompanied by advocacy.
- The absorptive capacity of national systems also needs to be considered. National social protection schemes in low and middle-income countries may be stretched financially, institutionally, and administratively, even before the transfer of beneficiaries previously supported by humanitarian assistance. Therefore, the absorption of these additional beneficiaries by social protection systems should be carefully calibrated.
- Robust data is required in the alignment process, in particular when aligning with the social registry or the targeting approach.
- Lessons learned from humanitarian cash assistance, such as transfer mechanisms or innovative technology, can be transferred to the national system in situations where it is being developed or strengthened.
- Refugees might well need assistance in the inclusion process. Social assistance is often applied for, a process in which non-nationals may require support from humanitarian or development actors, or the authorities themselves.
- There is a need for better documentation of lessons, performance and knowledge sharing in humanitarian assistance.
This review drew on a mixture of academic papers and grey literature, notably reports by development agencies. As well as a dearth of examples in which humanitarian responses have been aligned to existing national social protection systems, it found a lack of evaluations of programmes. The literature was largely gender-blind with little reference to people with disabilities.