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Covid-19: Global South responses show social challenges, strengths


The Covid-19 pandemic is more than a health crisis. It has also revealed other fault lines such as weak and inadequate social service delivery systems and institutional challenges.

The poverty and inequality fault lines are unlikely to be redrawn or removed if new and innovative evidence-based solutions are not found to respond to these interlocking problems. One of the questions I attempt to answer in this article is what we might learn from social policy and social development responses in the global South to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and to help Covid-19 recovery.

My lens is a southern one largely because the social development approach — and related social protection policies that have come to be the bedrock of government responses to the pandemic — originated in development contexts in the mid- and late-1990s. During the 1990s the exponential growth of social protection policies to reduce poverty, vulnerability and inequality served to reset development thinking and action internationally. Examples of pioneering programmes are child support grants in South Africa and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia.

By 2018, over 140 countries had implemented a diversity of social protection measures. Across Africa close to 50 new programmes have been initiated in the last 20 years. Different strategies have been used such as food assistance, school feeding schemes and public employment programmes. But cash transfers that are paid regularly to selected beneficiaries or categories of people based on an assessment of need have led the way. Some authors label this a “revolution from below”.

Social protection policies have been the bedrock of social policy responses to the pandemic. They have played a big role, protecting people from falling deeper into poverty or from the brink of starvation.

Impact of social protection

Advocates of social protection in the global South have argued that social policies have had positive social and economic multiplier effects. Evidence from a systematic review of non-contributory social assistance (funded from taxes and or development assistance as opposed to schemes made up of employer and employee contributions) shows improvements in monetary poverty, education, health and nutrition.

There were also improvements in savings, investment and production as well as work seeking and empowerment. The study was done in low- and middle-income countries over 15 years, based on data from 165 studies. Social protection programmes have come in for criticism, particularly from policy makers and politicians on the right of the political spectrum. They have been accused of making people work shy, and for encouraging teenage pregnancy.

The review found no effects of the payments on adult work effort or increased fertility. Another study found positive effects on women’s and girls’ well-being, especially in education and employment, along with increases in women’s decision-making power and choices.

Pandemic responses

Early in the pandemic, countries had to address several questions as the virus spread and lockdowns became inevitable.

These included:

  • Who needed the most help;
  •  What types of interventions were needed;
  •  What coverage levels should be; and
  • How long they should be in place.

Consideration also had to be given to what the most cost-effective interventions would be, how to ensure accountability of public spending and the long-term implications.

The responses that emerged were largely adaptive, built on existing social protection systems. Most countries increased benefit levels.

In others, new beneficiaries were added to existing programmes and new programmes were established, such as in South Africa. About half (47%) of cash transfers are new programmes in 78 countries (reaching 512,6 million people), while one-fifth (22%) of measures are one-off payments.

In December 2020, Ugo Gentilini, who is the social protection lead at the World Bank, and his colleagues at the bank and Unicef collated the first Real-Time Review of Country Measures to respond to Covid-19 in developing countries.

This shows, among other things, that:

  • Country-level responses increased significantly, with 1 414 social protection policies planned and implemented in 215 countries; and
  •  Social assistance made up close to two-thirds of all the programmes in this database while the rest complemented these with social insurance schemes and labour market programmes. But cash payments were by far the most popular response in low-income countries (90%) and less than half in high income countries. Social assistance strategies included cash transfers (conditional and unconditional), social pensions, in-kind food, as well as food voucher schemes and school feeding schemes.

Patel is a professor of Social Development Studies, University of Johannesburg

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