Designing social protection programs for the pandemic

François Gerard, Clément Imbert and Kate Orkin published a useful article on this topic recently at Economics for Inclusive Prosperity.  As the authors write,

Our core argument is that middle-income and lower-income countries can cast an emergency safety net with extensive coverage if they use a broader patchwork of solutions than higher-income countries. These strategies could include:

  1. Expanding their social insurance system, which typically covers a much smaller share of the labour force than in higher-income countries;
  2. Building on existing social assistance programmes, which reach a large share of households in many developing countries;
  3. Involving local governments and non-state institutions to identify and assist vulnerable groups who may not be reached by 1) and 2).

The whole article is really worth reading.  I’ll highlight just a few points about using local leaders and non-state institutions to enroll people in social protection programs, as enrollment has been widely perceive as a stumbling block in these times of social distancing.

range of non-state institutions are also particularly active in giving voice to specific groups or serving populations beyond the reach of the state. [For example,] illegal urban settlements sometimes have recognized local leaders who facilitate access to state services and social benefits and are accountable to local populations (e.g. in urban India[35]). Recognized local NGOs also often provide a range of services and sometimes coordinate their efforts within a geographic area under an umbrella organization (e.g. in urban Brazil[36]); they may have years of experience being accountable to both their donors and their beneficiaries. International NGOs (e.g. BRAC, Oxfam) have a strong presence across a range of contexts. There are also private associations with specific purposes, which can, in some instances, have wide coverage. For example, 24% of Africans participated in community-organised savings groups (Findex, 2014). Membership may be even higher in rural areas: 53% of a rural Kenyan sample were members of a rotating savings group (ROSCA) (Orkin and Walker, 2020). In Ethiopia, over 90% of villagers in two separate samples are members of burial associations (Dercon et al., 2006; Bernard et al., 2014). Another type of private associations are professional organizations, which may be active in sectors that employ many  informal or poor workers. For example, India’s relief package encourages Building and Other Construction Worker Welfare Funds to provide emergency assistance.[37]

What role can non-state institutions play?

Some will likely repurpose themselves to provide emergency assistance in the current crisis spontaneously, an effort that could be leveraged and complemented by governments. Governments could leverage their infrastructure to gather information on the needs of their many beneficiaries. Many have a network of workers in remote areas, who are already part of public health responses, e.g. an NGO trained community volunteers, religious leaders and traditional healers in Senegal to monitor for common diseases in their villages.[38] They could be used to recruit people into government programmes in environments where communication about new programmes is difficult. For instance, Kenya used ROSCAs to enroll participants into its new health insurance scheme (Oraro and Wyss, 2018). India used National Rural Livelihood Missions and their network of Self-Help-Groups (SHG) to advertise and enrol people into many development programmes, such as rural sanitation (Swachh Bharat Mission).

It may be unusual to involve non-state actors directly in provision of state assistance, but unprecedented times may call for exploring new opportunities. Although there may be justifiable concerns about a lack of accountability, institutions with a long history and broad base of membership may be particularly resistant to the capture of transfers (Dercon et al., 2006). They already need to be locally legitimate to sustain their work, as they have no formal legal authority and are regulated largely by social sanction (Olken and Singhal, 2011). The most important concern is that community institutions remain inclusive in times of crisis and share broadly the emergency resources given to them (Gugerty and Kremer, 2008).