by Kenn Crossley
Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As most natural disasters are predictable to some extent, it makes sense to invest into government social protection schemes to build their long-term resilience
When an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude struck Ecuador in April 2016 and left thousands of people without a home and infrastructure severely damaged, the World Food Programme (WFP) responded to the government’s call with an emergency cash programme. Ecuador was not a country in crisis or conflict where WFP had a large scale on-going relief operation, and the economic, financial and governmental institutions were functioning well. The challenge was to provide fast emergency relief to people in need so they could resume a somewhat normal life as soon as possible.
Prior to the shock, WFP in Ecuador had been working in close cooperation with the government to prepare a response plan for a likely climate-related disaster, in particular an eruption of the Cotopaxi Volcano, and had agreed on pre-established response mechanisms. When the earthquake struck, they were ready. Within 72 hours, initial food kits were delivered and distributed to people in shelters, hospitals and communities. Immediately after, WFP worked with the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion (MIES), to provide cash transfers for food to the affected people under the government’s “Rebuilding Ecuador” plan, reaching more than 130,000 people by the end of 2016. It was the first time in Latin America that WFP used an existing national social protection platform to transfer assistance.
WFP is well known for its emergency work, but maybe less so for its continuous effort in supporting and strengthening national safety net systems. In striving to reach the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of ending poverty and hunger by 2030, we aim to empower local governments and organizations to be self-reliant in the face of a crisis. As WFP provides an increasing portion of its assistance in cash, it is able to channel this assistance through existing social protection systems and help strengthen them. WFP had a similar response in Fiji in 2016, where in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston, it distributed food vouchers to victims through a national safety net scheme. Likewise in the Philippines two years previously, WFP leveraged the government social protection system to provide cash assistance to people affected by Typhoon Haiyan.
According to the World Bank, in 2015, every country in the world had at least one social safety net programme in place. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of countries providing support through a social protection system almost doubled in the last decade. While progress is being made in establishing social safety nets, these emerging systems are under dire pressure to expand their coverage because of the increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters.
In the last 30 years, the number of natural shocks increased threefold and the number of affected people grew from 100 million to 285 million. Projections are no more reassuring: the percentage of the world's poor living in fragile situations is expected to grow from 43 percent today to 64 percent by 2030, according to the International Disaster Database from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Channeling cash through national safety nets can help such systems develop.
However, as was learnt in the case of Ecuador, Fiji and elsewhere, for social safety nets to function in the event of a disaster, they need to have an in-built mechanism that allows them to include newly eligible people or access new geographical areas because of the shock. It is precisely on this aspect that WFP is working: to strengthen so-called system "preparedness" or its ability to suddenly increase in scale, and help implement national response mechanisms prior to a shock. In Kenya for instance, WFP and the government have launched a central database registry to gather information from multiple social protection schemes and consolidate them into one.
As most natural disasters are predictable to some extent, we believe it makes sense to invest into government social protection schemes to build their long-term resilience and ability to respond to a disaster without the systematic intervention of international humanitarian agencies. Furthermore, it is more cost-effective to do so. Simulations highlighted by the World Bank show that providing regular cash transfers to support 20 percent of the poor population in Niger, for example, would cost $102 million per year, as compared with an annual average of $218 million spent on humanitarian response between 2010 and 2013.
If we are to reach the SDGs by 2030 in a world of increased emergencies and limited resources, we cannot continue with business as usual. Our world is changing fast, new digital and financial technologies are emerging, but not everyone is benefitting from this relentless progress. Yet, these new technologies can provide an unprecedented opportunity to include those who have been left behind for too long. It is our responsibility as humanitarians to connect the most vulnerable so that they can get out of poverty. Working with national safety nets can help us going faster in that direction.
Kenn Crossley is deputy director of programme and policy at the World Food Programme