Social Assistance is the public provision of goods and services, often in cash, aimed at supporting people who are experiencing hardship or vulnerability. This includes support to meet basic needs, such as housing and food, as well as other benefits like childcare, healthcare and education. It also supports the social and economic participation of people, reducing their vulnerability to shocks and enabling them to develop their capacities, especially in relation to poverty reduction.
In the context of decentralisation, social assistance may be delivered in various ways including through a payments instrument (card, voucher, QR-code or one-time passcode), or via digital payment systems such as mobile money platforms. In both cases, the goal is to efficiently transfer value from sender to recipient and offer them reliable, convenient and safe access to their payment.
To achieve this, the design of social assistance programmes requires balancing three goals: preventing shocks that will have a negative impact on the poor; helping them recover from those that do occur; and developing their capabilities. These capabilities, which are crucial for achieving broader development goals, are often hampered by a lack of access to financial instruments. Programmes involving conditional cash transfers (CCT) combined with service provisions have been found to be effective in overcoming this issue. They provide the means to overcome opportunity costs, such as the loss of income associated with sending children to school or visiting a doctor, by offering direct cash transfers directly to household heads.
However, there are many challenges to designing and implementing social assistance programmes. The most important are: determining how much cash to distribute, the way in which it is to be distributed and the way in which beneficiaries can use it. In addition, there are concerns about the long-term sustainability of these programmes, which should include mechanisms for improving labour market participation and promoting social inclusion.
The design and implementation of social assistance programmes require collaboration between donors and host countries. The donor’s remit and development strategy will determine which funding mechanisms and potential partners are most appropriate. The aim is to deliver the necessary support to enable individuals and families to become self-sufficient, thereby removing their dependency on State programmes.
As donors and host country partners are working together to deliver the required support to vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 crisis, there are opportunities to further strengthen the capacity of the sector to implement effective and sustainable social protection programmes. This could be done through the promotion of a holistic approach to support that includes the identification of individual needs, the use of evidence-based interventions and fostering an environment conducive to private sector investment. It should also include ensuring that social protection programmes are integrated with and complement other policies and initiatives such as those related to employment, nutrition, health and education.