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Humanitarian assistance versus safety nets: are we asking the right questions?

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Ebola survivors Mariatu and her daughter Adam. Photo © Dominic Chavez / World Bank

As the World Humanitarian Summit approaches, the buzz around humanitarian issues is reaching fever pitch (see here, here and here). This is complemented by a growing literature on how government safety nets such as cash transfer programs can be ‘scalable’ in response to shocks (see here and here).
Amidst the excitement, the distinction between humanitarian assistance and safety nets is not always clear: how do they differ? Are they complementary or alternatives? What are the trade-offs? In a recent note, I tried to explore some these quandaries. 

For instance, are we really comparing apples with apples?
The overall environment in which humanitarian actors operate is volatile, chaotic, and poses immediate threats to the lives of affected people. As such, humanitarian programs are designed with life-saving purposes. These operate under short time horizons and in line with humanitarian principles.
Safety nets, on the other hand, tend to adopt a longer-term view. They are a component of broader social protection systems, are enshrined in legislation in some cases, and are often financed by governments themselves.
In other words, the salience of the safety net agenda is its focus on national systems. While humanitarians might operate where those systems are wiped out by conflict (what safety net are in Syria nowadays?), or are momentarily so in the early stages of a sudden disaster, or are too feeble, or not fit legally (e.g., supporting refugees). For instance, it is estimated that only three percent of total humanitarian funds is channeled through national governments.


While operating outside national systems may sometimes be born out of necessity, this has created a structural bifurcation (i.e. splitting into two approaches). As a thought-provoking blog on the Guardian put it: “… maintaining neutrality and independence drives humanitarian actors towards ‘state avoidance’ while development requires much more of a partnership approach”.
Is this bifurcation relevant?
It is so for strategic and operational reasons. Some donors seem to ponder about the possibility to transfer ‘humanitarian caseloads’ (people currently served by humanitarian aid budgets) onto safety net programs (as provided by national governments, often with support from development partners). This means that host governments’ willingness and capacity to prepare for such a shift need to be in place, including  the reconciliation (or at least the interoperability) of several operational ‘nuts and bolts’.
This is tricky since humanitarians may operate in the same communities reached by safety nets and use the same type of programs (such as cash transfers), but these are often underpinned by different design and implementation features (e.g., targeting methods, management and information systems, and institutional arrangements). Hence, ensuring a basic level of operational coherence between the two worlds is a key priority.
Are there encouraging experiences to learn from?
A growing number of practices are emerging. In Mauritania, for example, humanitarian and safety net practitioners are working toward utilizing a common list of beneficiaries or national social registry.  In Lebanon, humanitarians are using a joint delivery platform that influenced the extension of a refugee voucher program to Lebanese citizens. In the Philippines, emergency response includes the delivery of humanitarian assistance through the national safety net Pantawid.
Of course, there is diversity among these programs and it’s important to frame policy implications in different contexts.
For instance, by examining safety net coverage and humanitarian spending, three broad clusters of countries emerge: 

  • Countries with well-performing safety net coverage and who receive comparatively little humanitarian aid. This encompasses contexts like the Philippines, Pakistan, Iraq, Kenya, Lesotho and Nepal that are exposed to shocks but also have a basic safety net platform. It may be possible that humanitarian assistance will play an important role, albeit growing investments in system-enhancements may largely reduce such need over time.
Source: World Bank ASPIRE and Financial Tracking System database
  • Countries with low safety nets coverage and relatively high volume of humanitarian aid. This encompasses countries mired in protracted and multiple crises, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. A core challenge may be to find ways for aligning incentives and plans between agendas in highly volatile contexts. There’s a need to operate and strengthen institutions in ‘fragile’ situations while preserving humanitarian approaches.
  • Countries that are neither covered by safety nets nor are receiving substantial humanitarian support. These include various nascent safety net systems in Congo, Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia and Cameroon. There might be benefits for building systems ‘from scratch’, especially among middle-income countries. Yet that is also presents a limitation in terms of bedrock of capacity. Consider, for example, that Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program was born by transforming pre-existing humanitarian assistance. It’s important to note that this included a considerable level of experience that was harnessed to forging the safety net. 
Towards a more nuanced debate
There’s a need to clearly chart out where humanitarian assistance and safety net programs overlap and where they don’t. When they do overlap, it is important to capture the comparative costs and benefits of alternative approaches. We don’t have that sort of systematic evidence yet.
The political economy and incentives of moving from humanitarian assistance to safety nets is another key and largely unaddressed issue, and so is the exploration of the specific conditions under which those approaches could coexist and reinforce each other in an economic and politically sustainable manner.
If modern crises demand both immediate relief while investing in national systems, then it becomes key to understanding the interactions and trade-offs between humanitarian aid and safety nets. This is too important an issue to be left as a “research gap”.

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Interested in safety nets data? Check out this infographic .



Ugo Gentilini

Global Lead for Social Assistance, World Bank

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