The virus that spurred Burkina Faso and African nations to scale up its social safety nets

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According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 virus seems to be spreading more slowly in Africa than elsewhere in the world. This may be because of a relatively young population, lower rates of obesity and sparse road networks, leading to less travel. But it may also be because of low levels of testing leading to undercounting. Nevertheless, the virus will likely smolder in transmission hotspots, such as congested urban areas, and risks remain immense. This could overwhelm already weak health care systems, while vertical efforts concentrated only on the pandemic could threaten other hard-won gains.  

Many African countries acted swiftly and early to contain the spread. But lockdowns and border closures have, caused immense hardships particularly for those that depend on informal employment, such as vendors or small-scale farmers and traders. The ongoing outbreak has already impacted growth and is expected to trigger the first recession in Sub-Saharan Africa in 25 years.  

To protect the poor and vulnerable from shocks and crises - but also the near-poor who risk falling into poverty and destitution - it is critical to have shock-responsive social protection systems in place . Over the past two decades Sub-Saharan countries have seen a significant social protection expansion and more than 45 countries have established social safety nets programs. These social safety nets are meant to catch you if you fall on hard times, a “poverty insurance” if you will. Besides alleviating poverty and building resilience and human capital long-term, safety nets are also well suited to channeling short-term responses to climate and pandemic shocks and food insecurity.  

The COVID-19 crisis has made African leaders acutely aware of the need to scale-up social safety nets programs, not only to meet today’s challenges but also to ensure preparedness for unexpected events in an increasingly unpredictable world. One such country is Burkina Faso, located in the heart of West Africa.  

Catching people if they fall on hard times 

Known for his simple lifestyle—he used to cycle around the capital Ouagadougou on a rusty old bicycle during his four years in power—Thomas Sankara is one of the most popular Presidents of Burkina Faso, partially so because of the massive social programs he launched to safeguard the poorest in the nation 

Today, like other countries in the Sahel, Burkina Faso faces conflict, rapid rise in terrorist attacks and forced displacement, while struggling with natural disasters and the devastating impact of climate change. On top of that, it is now dealing with COVID-19. Although the country has experienced sustained economic growth in the past decade, primarily due to its main export commodities of cotton and gold, this growth has not benefited the vast majority of the population. Many still live in chronic poverty.  

In order to develop sound policies that can more effectively meet the needs of the poorest, the government commissioned a review of Burkina Faso’s social safety nets. Some of the findings were startling : Despite significant spending on safety nets (2.7% of GDP in 2018), less than 3% of the population in Burkina Faso were covered, and most of those people were relatively well off. However, the study also revealed that with improved targeting - if allocated resources actually reached the poor - the country’s poverty gap could in fact be eradicated at current levels of financing.  This revelation led the government to adopt a legal order that establishes methods to reach the extreme poor. 

This improved understanding of how to target intended populations more accurately, especially in times of shock, helped the government swiftly set in motion a response to the COVID-19 pandemic as it hit the country. The response has been able to piggy-back on existing payment systems and beneficiary registries, including the country’s largest social safety net program  “Burkin-Naong-Sa Ya.” The program, which in the Mooré dialect means “end of poverty in Burkina Faso,” is expanding its cash transfers so that it reaches more of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Putting cash in the hands of those who need it most is helping to sustain local economic activities.  

Reaching the “newly vulnerable” 

Efforts are also underway to expand the social protection system to those who typically do not qualify for cash transfers but are on the brink of falling into poverty due to COVID-19. This includes vendors, small-scale farmers, traders, and others who depend on informal employment paralyzed by lockdowns and border closures. Reaching the newly vulnerable and near-poor requires quickly expanding social registries of beneficiaries in novel ways. It is a work in progress, but Burkina Faso aims to develop “emergency registries” that go beyond simply assessing tax data to determine eligibility for support. Social workers are finding creative ways of identifying new recipients, including considering former public works beneficiaries. Looking ahead, the next step will be to preserve livelihoods. This will require retaining or restoring employment through some form of unemployment insurance to compensate workers for lost income caused by  extensive lockdowns and the broader economic downturn. 

Building resilience for the next shock 

Burkina Faso has realized the potential of social safety nets to cushion the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, but building resilience for the next shock will require reprioritizing public expenditures going forward. A 2019 World Bank review of the nation’s social protection system and social safety nets showed that costly and existing energy subsidies mainly benefit the rich not the poor. Simulations revealed that ending the subsidies would barely affect the vulnerable. Eliminating gas subsidies alone would enable savings equivalent to 0.36% of GDP, roughly the same amount spent on one of the nation’s largest existing social safety nets programs. Redirecting such savings toward protection, in combination with improved targeting of poor populations, would a nationwide, comprehensive and effective shock-responsive social safety nets system. 

The COVID-19 crisis has made social safety nets more important than ever, as they help mitigate the social and economic impacts of predictable and unpredictable shocks . But the most important lesson is that the best way of protecting the population and building resilience is to strengthen government safety nets programs before the next shock hits. That work starts now.  

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