“The Turning Point of my Life”: COVID-19 emergency cash transfers in Sierra Leone
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From Ebola to COVID-19 via climate shocks and landslides
Sierra Leone is, unfortunately, no stranger to frequent and sometimes devastating shocks. Just six years ago, the country became embroiled in the battle against the deadly Ebola outbreak, which ultimately proved to be fatal for over one third of the people it infected. In those few years between the end of the Ebola epidemic and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sierra Leone has also been hit by several climatic shocks, most notably the heavy rains of 2017 that led to a devastating mudslide in the capital city of Freetown. Ripping through a dense residential district, the mudslide left a scar on the city that is still visible to this day. By the end of March 2020, the President of Sierra Leone declared a state of public emergency in response to the country’s latest crisis, only this time a global one.
Venturing into Sierra Leone’s cities
No later than the beginning of June, just over two months after the declaration of emergency, teams from the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), the implementing agency for social protection, were racing into the field to roll-out a newly designed COVID-19 Emergency Cash Transfer (ECT) in Freetown and four other regional cities. The ECT would ultimately reach 29,000 beneficiaries with this first wave of cash-based assistance.
Isatu Kamara, a market trader in Freetown, mother of five children and her household’s sole breadwinner, was one of the beneficiaries. Her business had slowed because of the pandemic and she had nearly used all of her savings on food, transportation and medicine. An unforeseen medical bill for her child during the crisis exhausted what remained of her savings and left her reliant on gifts from friends and family. “This continued” Isatu recounts “until the team from NaCSA visited the market to target beneficiaries. I qualified to receive SL1,309,000 ($135). This was the turning point of my life. Now I have enough to continue doing my business and even expand on it.’’
Early analyses suggested that the pandemic’s economic impacts would hit vulnerable, informal sector workers in urban areas first and hardest. Many like Isatu were having to navigate lockdowns, curfews, and reduced revenues with limited financial resources to cushion the impact. At the same time, social protection programs had never really ventured into Sierra Leone’s cities to provide access to vulnerable people, instead mostly focusing on reaching extreme poor households in rural parts of the country.
How, then, did NaCSA get this assistance into the hands of beneficiaries like Isatu so quickly and what lessons are there to prepare for future shocks?
Strengthening delivery systems
While shocks and their fall-out tend to grab headlines, it’s the long-term, less visible business of building robust delivery systems that provides the foundation for a shock or crisis response intervention like the ECT. Since 2014, with support from the Social Safety Nets Project, NaCSA have been investing in these delivery systems that NaCSA were able to leverage and adapt to respond to the unique demands of the COVID-19 crisis.
This experience in Sierra Leone reinforces a message that is emerging globally: social protection system strengthening should remain an overriding priority when building back better from the pandemic. Doing so offers a double dividend: improving day-to-day social protection delivery and increasing preparedness for shock response.
Learning from each new crisis
Over several years, these same delivery systems have been leveraged and adapted for prior shock responses in Sierra Leone, providing growing institutional memory and technical know-how within NaCSA. As an example, the targeting process used for the cash transfer response to Ebola formed an important part of the COVID-19 Emergency Cash Transfer targeting methodology. The lessons emerging from the implementation of the COVID-19 ECT will, in the same way, further enhance this institutional memory and provide valuable lessons for preparing ahead of the next shock.
But memory fades and the staff involved in the last response may have moved on before the next one. For this reason, NaCSA are exploring the use of contingency plans and standard operating procedures to formally capture lessons from COVID-19, enhance institutional memory and better prepare for the future.
Achieving speed and scale with risk financing
With crises like the mudslide and Ebola in recent memory, NaCSA took the unusual but prescient step of holding a small amount of IDA financing from the Social Safety Net Project’s Second Additional Financing in a ‘contingency fund’. The $ 4 million was earmarked for emergency cash transfers and ringfenced until an ‘eligible emergency’ occurred. Access to these pre-positioned emergency funds when COVID-19 hit was a decisive factor in the ECT’s timeliness, ahead of the slower mobilization of other resources.
With this experience in mind, the Government of Sierra Leone, with assistance from the Global Risk Financing Facility (GRiF), are working to define a proactive and comprehensive approach to risk financing that could provide the resources for the ECT to quickly reach a larger share of the people in need during future crises.
Addressing the urban blind spot
As the crisis has shown, a sizeable share of the country’s population often lives in a perennial state of vulnerability to shocks and will continue to do so once COVID-19 recedes. With that prominent hole in the ‘safety net’ revealed by COVID-19, expansions in access to social protection in Sierra Leone and beyond will need to prioritize reaching within urban areas and among these informal sector workers.