The importance of informal social protection is often overlooked
The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 2016) affirmed that people affected by crises or living in situations of risk are rights-holders who must be put at the centre of decision-making processes. According to the latest humanitarian update for the Sahel, grave concerns persist for some 20 million people as recurrent conflict, erratic weather patterns, epidemics and other shocks continue to weaken the resilience of households across a region still suffering chronic levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. Yet sometimes, in the urgent rush to offer needed assistance, humanitarian and development actors fail to fully engage with local populations and the systems they have developed to cushion against shocks.
Informal social protection systems and mechanisms play a critical role in the lives of local populations across sub-Saharan Africa. In the absence and/or inadequacy of formal social protection, most people depend largely on the reciprocal ties that bind them to extended families, neighbours and the larger community for the exchange of services, sharing of food, loaning of assets, pooling of resources and other forms of assistance in times of need.
Socio-economic transformations may be eroding some of the values informing these systems, and generalised poverty may make it hard for people to help one another. Yet most evidence points to their continued vitality as a form of social capital that is often the first line of defence when families fall on hard times.
As part of Oxford Policy Management’s ongoing research on shock-responsive social protection systems and as a complement to a forthcoming case study of the Sahel, we’ve produced a working paper that explores community-level practices and perceptions of social protection in the Sahel and considers what these mean for policymakers wishing to put in place more formal interventions to deal with shocks that affect whole communities at once, such as a drought (‘covariate shocks’). We summarise some of these perspectives here.
How have communities in the Sahel adapted to deal with shocks?
One major strategic adaptation to the ever-present threat of drought as a covariate shock, in the Sahel and elsewhere, has been the evolution of pastoral livelihood systems. Through such practices as seasonal mobility, diversification of herds, maintenance of social and economic relations with sedentary populations, and the multiplication of productive activities, pastoral nomads across the Sahel have developed a variety of strategies to deal with the principal risks and hazards in their environment. However, such strategies and mechanisms are under constant and increasing threat, leaving pastoral nomads across Africa ever more vulnerable to food insecurity, malnutrition, and livelihood failures. Critical action is therefore needed to strengthen social protection for pastoral nomads and strengthen household resilience to disasters.
Kin-based structures are generally considered to be the main type of informal social safety net across Africa. People transfer resources within and between their households, including, increasingly, in the form of remittances. Other informal systems include faith-based mechanisms based on a system of shared principles and values; arrangements such as revolving savings and credit associations that are often particularly strong and well-developed among women; and a variety of rural livelihood support mechanisms such as the pooling of labour for agricultural tasks, or the lending of animals among pastoralists.
Much literature on the topic suggests that informal mechanisms are most equipped to respond to idiosyncratic shocks linked to individual household or life-cycle events such as illness or death, but may have less resilience in the face of covariate shocks when the livelihoods and well-being of a wide community are affected. Others suggest, however, that their power has been underestimated. But we do find examples of where they have been able to intensify in times of covariate shocks. For instance, during a food crisis in Niger seasonal labour migration increased and remittances scaled up, contributing to maintaining families in their villages.
What’s more, development and humanitarian partners can support these systems to maximise their effectiveness in a shock such as a food crisis. CARE, for example, has successfully built upon local rotating savings and credit associations to help communities improve their longer term household food and nutrition security, essential as a resilience measure in the face of drought. And earlier, in the aftermath of the Sahelian drought of the 1970s, Oxfam supported a local custom of animal sharing, called Habbanae (or ‘animal of friendship’) to assist destitute pastoralists to rebuild their stocks.
What do these informal mechanisms mean for formal social protection?
It’s self-evident that social protection programmes shouldn’t act in a way that damages these informal systems. But it’s surprising how rarely they are referenced explicitly in national social protection strategies. So, how can we take these systems and community experiences and perceptions into account in the design of programmes that are meant to be ‘shock-responsive’, addressing community-wide crises like droughts?
- Build on and support locally adaptive livelihood strategies: In the case of pastoral nomads, this would entail long-term predictable transfer programmes that allow benefits to accrue and enable investment in adaptive pastoral livelihoods; ‘climate-smart’ targeting and implementation arrangements that are sufficiently flexible to allow expansion and contraction in response to risks and that take into account the distinctive seasonal dimensions of pastoral (as distinct from agricultural) vulnerability; and integration with other social and economic measures that address multiple dimensions of risk (see for example discussion here and here).
- Take community perspectives and values into consideration in the design of all programmes: This includes in targeting processes which can usefully build on customary social solidarity mechanisms (while addressing any inequities that these may reflect) and take care not to be socially divisive. Existing selective targeting processes are often seen to run counter to the culture of solidarity that dictates broader sharing of external benefits. They may even discourage those who are slightly better off and excluded from social protection programmes from supporting others as they might normally have done. In fact, local values often seem to prevail as beneficiaries commonly redistribute benefits to others (see for example discussion here, here and here).
- Develop methods to capture poverty dynamics in order to respond more effectively to both sudden onset and longer term shock. Current targeting methods often capture (at best) only a snapshot of poverty and fail to consider how those just above a cut-off may dip below thereafter. For longer-term social protection programmes, this would mean regular recertification, with its entailing costs and complexities. It also implies regular / ongoing enrolment campaigns for new beneficiaries. For shock-responsive systems in particular, this would imply a mechanism sensitive enough to capture distress in both current recipient households, and households within the wider community.
- Strengthen tools and methodologies to bring community voices into programme evaluations: While there are many benefits to formal social protection, the large number of agencies, the different ârules of the gameâ in each case, and the different values attributed to food, cash, and other inputs combine to create confusion as well as opportunities for manipulation of the system. Lessons learned from community responses to seasonal safety nets in the Sahel can usefully feed into reflection on appropriate design features for community-sensitive shock-responsive social protection, particularly as longer-term, predictable national safety net programmes get underway in the region. Building qualitative and participatory consultations, monitoring systems, grievance mechanisms, and evaluation processes into all programmes will give community voices a better chance of being heard.
Carol Watson is a social anthropologist who has worked over the years on social protection, policy and development issues in a number of Sahelian countries.