Africa: Covid-19 - Global South Responses Have Shown Up Social Policy Challenges - and Strengths

(file photo).

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 employeee 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 that:

Country-level responses increased significantly, with 1,414 social protection policies planned and implemented in 215 countries.

Social assistance made up close to two-thirds of all the programmes in this data base 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.

There were major regional differences. In sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean there was a much bigger emphasis on social assistance. Europe and Central Asia and North America used more social insurance measures.

Social insurance programmes such as paid unemployment, sick benefits, health insurance, pensions, contribution waivers or subsidies were identified.

The overview provided a number of valuable insights and lessons.


The first lesson is that countries with pre-existing systems of social protection and institutional capability were able to scale up more rapidly, and to implement the programmes fairly effectively.

Second, those that had registration systems and databases were able to do so faster. For example, India was able to reach 30 million beneficiaries in a month in the early stages of the pandemic because of effective digital registration and inter-system data sharing. Access to identity documents, mobile phones and bank accounts also facilitated the outreach and impact in India.

This points to powerful innovation that is continuing to evolve in the global South.

The analysis also gives insights into the weaknesses of the current systems. One is that low-income countries with limited resources were more reliant on external resources such as development assistance to fund social protection. Middle and upper middle-income countries had a little more fiscal leverage to do so themselves.

For instance, South Africa, an upper middle-income country with high levels of inequality, was able to fund its relief programme through its own resources. This brought an additional 5.3 million people into the social protection net.

Community level support

There was an additional factor in the global South that came to the fore during the crisis that shouldn't be ignored. This is the contribution of humanitarian assistance and community level mutual solidarity responses such as food relief that emerged in response to the pandemic.

Bottom-up community social solidarity initiatives have not been adequately documented but played a critical role in some countries to fill the holes in the safety nets.

These are age old indigenous and resilience building systems that should not go unnoticed.

This is an edited version of the speech Professor Patel delivered to the International Association of Schools of Social Work and the International Council on Social Welfare on Social Work Education and Development Online Conference as the recipient of the 2020 Katherine Kendall Memorial Award.

Leila Patel, Professor of Social Development Studies, University of Johannesburg

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