Facing the Social Protection Challenges of Climate Change

Flooding in rural Pakistan.
Flooding in rural Pakistan.

By Johanna Knoess

We need social protection programs that address the social consequences of natural disasters.

Natural disasters bringing previously unimaginable chaos, heartbreak, and economic and social casualties are likely to increase in number and intensity in the coming years due to climate change. They will affect everyone’s living standards, but the poor and vulnerable in particular will be hit harder – not only do they suffer the immediate impacts, but the environmental shocks can create significant shortfalls in health and education that can become permanent gaps. Policymakers thus face a daunting double challenge. In addition to securing immediate order, rule of law, and the recovery of life and limb, they have to reckon with an increase in chronic poverty, other forms of material and social deprivation, and more permanent inequality for generations.

What if policymakers had access to a set of social policies and transfer programs which could be rolled out precisely when (or even before) they were needed by desperate households?

Indeed, governments around the world have found innovative solutions to the challenges that accompany adverse natural events through the marriage of permanent social protection policies with immediate disaster relief measures. For example, Ethiopia in 2011 amended its Productive Safety Nets Program—which provides cash and in-kind transfers to poor and vulnerable individuals in normal times—or PSNP to include an additional 3 million at-risk beneficiaries when warning signs of imminent drought were detected.  Extending the PSNP to drought-affected areas before the drought fell helped keep millions of poor people from falling into poverty, and had positive impacts on access to health, education, and proper food, water, and shelter. Or consider Kenya, where the government allocated $22.5 million for emergency relief measures to be disbursed through the already-in-place payments infrastructure purpose-built for the regular social assistance program.

Efficient social safety nets are complex systems, both politically and administratively, and most countries have only nascent or immature systems in place by the time they face the next natural disaster. Likewise, financial constraints often prevent essential services from reaching those who are most in need. Four simple lessons from the cases mentioned above can help us better prepare for and then address the social consequences of environmental catastrophes.

1. Coordinate. After shocks, disaster risk management (DRM) units should have a standard operating procedure by which they coordinate and jointly deliver assistance with social protection departments. A possible division of work is DRM teams identifying specific needs that social protection programs can target.

2. Build flexible systems. Social protection programs need to be scalable as well as adaptable, allowing for the low-cost and rapid expansion of both the number of beneficiaries of a program and its benefits when there is a need. Targeting and delivery should also adapt as necessary to changing conditions on the ground, so that stringent means-testing is relaxed (or suspended) and payment schedules are accelerated when significant destruction of assets and livelihoods has occurred.

3. Create a sound financing structure. Social protection and disaster management response budgets need to be determined before the next disaster strikes so that no affected individual experiences unnecessary delays in receiving assistance. Funds may be on-budget,  incorporate disaster-triggered funds or other insurance-like mechanisms, or come from development or humanitarian aid.

4. Long-term protection creates short-term and long-term resilience. Social protection policy and programs—in coordination with other social services—can increase a vulnerable population’s resilience to natural disasters. Public employment programs, for example, can put underemployed labor on climate-smart infrastructure projects. Social protection also encourages adaptive capacity at a household or community level; insurance and improved production methods enable investment in profitable, weather-resistant crops, thereby contributing to the diversification of livelihoods. Finally, social protection can provide the poor and vulnerable a stake in their own future by giving them preferential access to credit and education.

In the face of the challenges posed by climate change, the international community cannot stand by idly. It is vital that development partners seek to strengthen capacities and to agree on coordination and cooperation mechanisms. Development partners also have to play their part in the creation of predictable and flexible financing arrangements such as contingency funds and insurance solutions. It is crucial that all stakeholders act in alignment with national strategies and according to existing needs, while coordinating work planning, outputs, and assistance across all sectors. 

Dealing with the consequences of climate change is a tremendous challenge. Increasing risks call for stronger, coordinated, longer-term solutions. Stronger capacities, closer cooperation and coordination, more flexible systems and sound financing can achieve better resilience and improved livelihoods.

The international community is starting to act on its responsibilities. In 2015, on the initiative of Germany, the G7 countries pledged to provide access to climate risk insurance for an additional 400 million people in the most vulnerable developing countries by 2020 through the InsuResilience initiative. This already is a significant step toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and supporting millions in sustaining their livelihoods despite the environmental threats we face.