With coronavirus, now is the time for the humanitarian system to change for good

Larissa Pelham Humanitarian

The humanitarian system is overwhelmed. With coronavirus predicted to double the number of people at risk of acute food insecurity to over one quarter of a billion, this pandemic has created unprecedented pressures on the system. Despite years of growth, the gap between what’s needed and the capacities available is growing.

Repeating the same approach of simply asking for more money is likely to continue to deliver the same shortcomings. So we need a step change. We need to stop being reactive, and start being proactive in our approaches.

Social protection (the ways society protects individuals from shocks throughout their lives) is a right all world citizens are entitled to. There has been a debate for some time about whether nationally owned, shock responsive social assistance initiatives could be a step-change in the way humanitarian assistance works.

This could be the moment to take these approaches to scale and to normalise. This crisis has been met by an openness to fiscal stimulus that we have not seen before, and not just in richer countries.

181 Governments are estimated to be pouring in over half a trillion dollars through their social protection systems to cushion citizens against the economic impact, and ensure food security and access to services.

It’s time for the humanitarian system to adapt

We are seeing this change happening from governments, and now it is time for the international humanitarian system to change as well. Globally 890 million new people are being brought into social protection systems with cash transfers, while low and lower middle-income countries alone are providing $29.7 billion in social assistance (ie non-contributory transfers).

On the other hand, the global humanitarian appeal has raised $1.3 billion of its required £6.7 billion to reach 117 million people. The implementation of these government responses is yet to be tested, we need to have a tracking system to monitor the speed of this implementation against government commitments to social assistance.

However, the figures suggest there is a story to tell in the differences in scale and scope between these two systems of response to coronavirus. We need to support the very systems that have the responsibility to protect people.

In 60 years of humanitarian aid, we have changed in response to big crises before that have exposed our flaws, and this is a great opportunity to permanently shift the way people are supported in times of widespread crisis.

Most disasters are, after all, not exceptional. The majority occur cyclically (e.g. floods, cyclones and drought), and affect the same vulnerable communities regularly.  More and more people who require stable long-term support to alleviate destitution are dependent upon short term humanitarian assistance.

This is the moment to collectively push for changing the way these communities are supported. We need to put our energies into creating scalable inclusive social protection systems in which most governments can meet the urgent needs during crises. We must ensure that those who are repeatedly in receipt of humanitarian assistance can be supported with more stable and longer-term government assistance, that is inclusive of different needs, and particularly addresses women’s access to social protection.

NGOs have played a strong role in this historically. Some of the existing scalable social protection schemes have emerged from humanitarian response and Oxfam, along with other NGOS, have helped implement Kenya’s HSNP for example. In Iraq the NGO Cash Consortium is progressing towards identifying who in humanitarian need are also eligible for government social protection.

We have a strong role to play to ensure systems are inclusive, that they are accountable and that civil society is at their heart.

There will still be times when huge disasters happen which vastly outweigh the capacity of all but the richest countries to cope, requiring the humanitarian aid architecture as we know it and scalable social protection is definitely not a panacea.  It is clearly ‘easiest’ in more stable countries, with areas of active conflict more difficult for government-led social protection to respond.

Some groundwork is being laid. We have seen common positions on the importance of social protection in coronavirus through advocacy papers from governments under SPIAC-B, from NGOs through the Collaborative Cash Delivery Network, and from multiple actors under the Grand Bargain’s working group on social protection & humanitarian cash.

So what needs to happen?

The shift needs to be institutional and financial both among governments and the international system. Shock responsive social assistance needs prioritising and resourcing as a core part of a government comprehensive and universal social protection system.

As a general approach, the international humanitarian system must support government social protection, where it does not conflict with humanitarian principles:

  1. The current crisis calls for a response on an unprecedented scale. Oxfam calls for $2.5 trillion in debt relief, special drawing rights, and support to developing economies to withstand the impacts of coronavirus.
  2. In the future, pre-positioned resources funded by humanitarian and development donors, could be pooled in a global fund for social protection. These could be ready for countries to draw on to scale up their social assistance (i.e. direct, non-contributory transfers) when pre-designed indicators have been triggered. In the midst of the corona pandemic this idea, dating back to 2012, has gained momentum in the SPIAC-B and elsewhere. And now is the time to make it happen.
  3. We need commitment from the international community to champion humanitarian actors to operate in ways that proactively support and complement existing government social protection measures, while also being allowed to be “critical friends” to improve performance.
  4. To save lives now, we must ensure the space for the most marginalised, who’s voices are often unheard, to be supported. This means the delivery has to be fast, appropriate and tailored to specific needs. Large scale schemes are essential, but the speed and scale can sometimes be inappropriate in some contexts. We have seen the unrest from Kenya to India, that can be unleashed if civil society is not fully engaged in coronavirus responses. NGOs have a vital role in the response so they are reaching those who most need it in an inclusive, transparent and accountable way and that local informal support systems from savings groups to remittances are helped too.
  5. Donors, IFIs and the private sector can bolster existing social protection systems through committing to funding mechanisms and supporting the technology and infrastructure needed to provide stable, predictable financial resources to scale up social protection in crises.

We are seeing how quickly the world can act if the resolve is there. This could have a lasting impact and we could make a markedly better system for the future.


Larissa Pelham


Nigel Timmins