Innovations in social protectionNepal can devise its own pilot programmes to respond to local situations and needs
The third anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the member states of the United Nations reminds us that the SDG clock is ticking. The aspiration of Agenda 2030 of ‘leaving no one behind’ calls for an integrated strategic plan that includes social protection to cover population groups most difficult to reach. Often the hardest to reach and most at risk are people who are vulnerable due to factors such as extreme poverty, disability, old age and chronic illness, social and geographic exclusion, and frequent natural disasters. In addition, population groups that are disconnected from mainstream government services and underserved by the market represent potential targets of social protection schemes.
Universal and residual social protection programmes that consist of periodic and predictable cash and in-kind assistance or incentives to low-income households and individuals can contribute significantly towards realising the aspiration of Agenda 2030. Smart and climate-responsive social protection can effectively close the current coverage gaps of anti-poverty interventions, build resilience to economic and climate-induced shocks, and facilitate better access to basic social services.
Nepal has come a long way from the charity-based informal social welfare programmes that prevailed though the millennia toward establishing a systemic and institutionalised social protection at the national level. The current potpourri of programmes in social assistance, social services, social insurance and labour market interventions were instituted in succession over the years without a valid social protection framework in place. Some programmes were politically driven while others were based on sound social and economic justifications. They are, however, not yet climate responsive or shock-resilient. Coverage in some areas is dismal as a recent study commissioned by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) on access of children with disabilities to monthly cash allowance indicated that a majority of adults and children with disabilities do not hold any disability ID card, which is a prerequisite for receiving cash allowances.
As resource constrained developing countries continue to espouse social protection at both local and national levels, empirical studies support the notion that creatively designed programmes including cash transfers help families to graduate from extreme poverty and build livelihoods, thereby contributing to breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty and deprivation. Such results should also enable poor families to better withstand climate-induced shocks.
The current set of social protection programmes, irrespective of the net welfare effect, do not constitute a comprehensive social protection floor, which is one of the priorities of the SDGs. A scientifically designed safety net must be in place that guarantees the provision of and access to an essential level of goods and services to every Nepali. To make the floor shock resilient or climate responsive, population groups that are at risk of climate-induced hazards should be identified and pre-registered. Shock-responsive social protection policies and programmes should note that out-migration of young men from their villages for employment has decreased the capacity of those left behind—the elderly, women and children—to respond to climate-induced disasters.
Social protection, inherently socio-economic context specific, lends opportunities for innovations and adjustments to suit the needs of different communities. Proven innovative models in developing and emerging economies that address issues in various sectors through social protection are available for Nepal to draw upon.
According to a report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Brazil and China provide cash payments to people in relation to forest conservation and ecological performance as part of the government’s anti-deforestation measures. This initiative can be extended to other natural resources such as water management. Cash and in-kind incentives along with the promotion of activities such as the practice of water safety principles, institutional and technical capacity development of users’ committees to undertake technical repairs, and financial management may improve the functionality of community water systems.
Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes include conditions for cash assistance that the beneficiary households make agreed investments in areas like education of their children, health and nutrition, prenatal care for mothers, or delayed marriage of adolescent girls. Innovatively designed CCTs can have a significant impact on reducing poverty and vulnerability. The Oportunidades programme in Mexico, designed to target poverty by providing cash payments to families in exchange for regular school attendance, health clinic visits and nutrition support, benefits more than 5 million families. It is credited for the reduction in poverty and improved health and education in the geographic areas it covers. Similarly, Bolsa Família of Brazil and Program Keluarga Harapan of Indonesia both provide low-income households with cash upon conditions that children attend school and are vaccinated.
With the increasing need to adapt to climate extremes and disasters, social protection mechanisms need to address emerging climate-induced vulnerabilities, thereby helping families and communities to become resilient. In Ethiopia, the Productive Safety Nets Programme offers a top-up payment in anticipation of droughts or floods using the Livelihoods, Early Assessment and Protection (LEAP) system that assesses agro-meteorological data to estimate crop yields and the financial resources required to scale up the productive safety net in case of a drought.
Innovations in social protection may not be limited to models that are successful elsewhere. Nepal can devise its own pilot programmes to respond to local circumstances, such as the one resulting from out-migration, based on the specific needs of the people, the available resources and innovative ideas. For instance, microfinance and its variations can be recognised and used as a component of social protection by themselves, or in combination with other welfare programmes. Likewise, the use of new technologies can improve the targeting mechanism and delivery system to ensure more efficient outcomes. New telecommunication technologies can facilitate real-time monitoring of programmes for greater control and constant improvement.
As Nepal’s social protection system consolidates and grows, the government should note that the system can embody boundless innovative solutions. The realm of social protection should be extended to address social issues in sectors such as agriculture and natural resource management, thereby covering groups left behind, contributing substantially to realising the SDG commitment of leaving no one behind.
Rajouria is a researcher at the International Water Management Institute.