As a child, I loved fire engines.
In this, of course, I wasn’t any different from millions of other young boys across the world. I loved the bright red machines of my Calcutta youth – which sped to the scene of a fire, with shiny bells clanging, firemen quickly unrolling the long hoses, connecting them to the water hydrant at the roadside, and then spraying down the conflagration with great jets of cooling water.
So what does this have to do with social safety nets?
As Margaret Grosh points out in her recent blog post, it’s well-established that in times of crises, safety nets can help families safeguard their lives, and protect their children’s futures. During times of crisis, safety nets can be quickly scaled up to help cushion the impact, as happened recently in Ethiopia during last year’s drought or in Mexico’s use of its Oportunidades program to ameliorate the effects of the crisis. To stay with the metaphor, when there’s a crisis, often compared to a fire, the government can send in fire engines.
But what if the fire engine gets to the burning house, and there isn’t a hydrant to connect to?
That’s the situation in many parts of the developing world. Much of the world’s poor are not covered by safety nets – so there is nothing that can be scaled up in times of crisis. In such circumstances, the impacts of crisis can be severe and long-lasting, as my colleague Ruslan Yemtsov wrote in his recent blog post.
‘Underground piping’ essential
Think of existing (non-crisis) safety nets as similar to the underground piping system in any city. They help poor families deal with the day-to-day shocks and deprivation, much like pipes delivering essential water to quench thirst and help hygiene. But when crises hit, the very same safety net “pipes” can be used by the crisis-response fire engines to quell the flames.
Underground piping systems are not as glamorous or noticeable as fire engines – but are essential for the effectiveness of the more attention-grabbing fire engines.
This is a central part of the agenda for safety nets in developing countries that is laid out in the new Social Protection and Labor strategy of the World Bank, which emphasizes helping countries build better social protection systems. In the many developing countries where safety nets are ineffective, incomplete or just absent, the Bank is helping countries build the basic administrative systems that underpin the development of social protection systems – beneficiary identification, payment mechanisms, institutional arrangements, and the like. Many of these programs are being helped by grants from the Rapid Social Response program. In other countries, where safety nets exist, the Bank is helping improve them and connect them better to other social protection and labor programs (as in Romania).
But the future of safety nets does not just involve underground pipes. It also needs ladders – access to good jobs to enable people to climb out of poverty and inability to cope with risk. This is the so-called graduation agenda. There is still insufficient knowledge about what works best, and what doesn’t, in this area – especially for the very poor.
Over the next few days, we will have high-level discussions at the World Bank’s Spring Meetings about how to work together with global partners on building and improving safety nets – and on closing the gap between those that have access to them and those that don’t. Hopefully, we can together move towards a world where everyone has access to the underground pipes of safety net systems in good times, strong job ladders to climb out of poverty and need, and effective fire engines to increase support in times of crisis.
Follow the discussion on Twitter at #closethegap.