Whenever there is any shock in Nepal, whether it is due to an epidemic like COVID-19 or some other disaster, our first concern is the protection of our own lives as well as those of our loved ones. Social protection is a matter of concern for everyone everywhere in the world. But we see it being threatened every day, and more so during shocks. Nepal's 2015 Constitution guarantees social protection to the poor and vulnerable. The Government of Nepal has in place a set of policies and programs aiming to alleviate poverty and vulnerability, but it has a long way to go before it can significantly reduce the lifelong consequences of poverty and exclusion. Given Nepal’s vulnerability to multiple hazards and concomitant shocks, ASP might be the best vehicle for building resilience to shocks. ASP differs from the traditional notion of social protection in that it supports increasing the resilience of poor and vulnerable households by investing in their capacity to prepare for, cope with, and adapt to shocks so that they do not plunge (deeper) into the vortex of poverty. In other words, it builds the resilience of the vulnerable population before a shock occurs and helps them receive timely and effective assistance after a shock. ASP can be seen as the marriage of social protection and disaster risk management and climate change adaptation.
In a global comparison, Nepal ranks 4th, 11th and 30thin terms of its risk of climate change, earthquakes, and floods respectively. These rankings are well reflected in the loss and damage the country experiences every year. According to the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), floods alone caused a loss of USD 909,929,000, killed 4,796 people, injured 1,417 and affected 4,839,811between 1990 and 2019. Climate change and disasters have a lasting impact on the population, causing loss of life and livelihood and catalyzing poverty and food insecurity. The World Bank (2012) estimates that a significant share of the population is at risk of falling into poverty as a result of shocks. According to a report, around two-fifths of Nepal’s poor in 2010 were not poor in 2003, with disasters a primary cause for their downward mobility. The government estimates that the devastating 2015 earthquakes pushed an additional 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of Nepalis, or 700,000 people, into poverty.
Around the world and in Nepal, shocks are evolving and occurring in new forms. The worldwide havoc created by the recently discovered coronavirus is just one example. Furthermore, climate change is expected to bring more extreme events. In 2019, Nepali scientists confirmed, using satellite images, that the country had experienced its first tornado. That tornado injured 1,176 people, affected 3,291 families, destroyed crops on1,505 hectares, and killed dozens of cattle. In 2020, besides the corona pandemic, the country witnessed a locust invasion that damaged crops in over 1,000 hectares of cropland. As of May 30, the corona pandemic had claimed the lives of 7,272people.
When a disaster occurs, poor families are the first ones to lose their livelihoods and be pushed further into poverty. The effects of shocks on human capital are often long-term, and children are particularly affected in terms of health, nutrition, and education. In this context, the emerging concept of ASP has gained a foothold among researchers and policymakers as a safety net that helps families spring back to their pre-shock status. While more research into how ASP can be achieved in differing country contexts is needed, in the long run, this integrated approach has the potential to contribute to human wellbeing by empowering individuals, households, communities and nations; improving quality of life; and transforming people’s lives to be more resilient in the face of shocks.
Why current social protection is not enough
Nepal has certainly strived to bolster social protection over the years. According to the 2020 World Bank report, among South Asian countries Nepal is one of the biggest social safety spenders in terms of the size of its economy, spending 1.32% of its GDP on its social safety net. The government has a multitude of citizenship-based social protection programs in education (e.g. free books, scholarships), healthcare (e.g. free treatment of some chronic ailments), children's welfare (e.g. feeding programs at schools), employment (e.g. Prime Minister's Employment Program), food security (e.g. agricultural insurance, seeds subsidies) and housing (e.g. housing support grant for households below the poverty line).
Despite the many efforts of the government, the current system is not perfect. Social protection policies are not disaster responsive. For instance, current disaster-related policies do not adequately address building the resilience of disaster-affected people. The policies that target poverty are not effectively implemented. For example, although the Public Health Services Act 2018ensures free health insurance to those identified as ‘the poorest’ and subsidized health insurance to the rest of those falling below the poverty line, it has yet to be fully implemented. Social assistance allowances are calculated arbitrarily and are too low to address poverty and vulnerability. For instance, people with disabilities receive monthly disability allowances ranging from NPR 1600 to 3000, which is hardly sufficient considering the cost of living and their multiple vulnerabilities.
Children’s social protection programs are not sufficient either. Nepal's Constitution enshrines the fundamental right to social protection for all children; however, in practice, children stop receiving social allowances as soon as they reach five years of age even though vulnerability and marginalization do not end at this age. Consequently, there are health implications like stunting, child abuse and exploitative behaviors such as child labor, child marriage, and child trafficking.
When it comes to implementation, social insurance programs exclude informal-sector workers, who are often the most vulnerable. ILO estimates that in Nepal, more than 70 percent of the economically active population is involved in the informal economy.
Another complication is that there is no proper demarcation of the roles of the federal and provincial governments for poverty reduction and social security, a fact which has led to overlapping and confusion. As identified in a study by Niti Foundation, Article 11 of the Local Government Operation Act 2018entrusts local governments with identifying and maintaining records of the number of poor households within their jurisdiction. However, the federal-level Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty continues to be engaged in this work, contradicting the Constitution, the Local Government Operation Act, and the subsidiary principle. These gaps call for a revolution in Nepal's SP sector.
ASP as a sustainable solution
Adopting the approach of ASP could be advantageous in many ways. To see the benefits, it is important to first understand what an ASP system would look like. Embracing ASP would mean having a clear and enduring commitment to ASP in social protection and disaster risk management strategies and supporting it with appropriate legislation and fiscal commitments. Ideally, there are strong linkages and institutionalized coordination mechanisms between social protection and disaster risk management for all shocks. Contingency plans for all shocks are in place and agencies have clearly designated roles and responsibilities for shock response. A government social registry with full coverage of all disasters and populations at risk is indispensable. The government should have its own database which is interoperable by all bodies and allows for the targeting, identifying, locating, and contacting of beneficiaries and the transfer of benefits (i.e. he addresses, phone numbers, and account details of beneficiaries) during shock response. At the same time, data privacy regulations are strict and other entities can only access aggregated or anonymized data. With data, contingency plans, and a coordination mechanism in place, no time is wasted running separate programs for the same target groups whenever there is a disaster or shock.
In terms of finance, there is a clear disaster risk financing strategy for a wide range of shocks. The government has the ability to analyze and model the potential cost implications of different shocks over time-based on historical data. Financing is in place to ensure a timely ASP response to disasters. Resources are ready to be released in times of emergency, and good systems exist to disburse and reconcile expenditure down to the beneficiary level.
Another important component of ASP is a robust early warning system (EWS). There is a national EWS capable of providing warnings (by monitoring and alerting) for one or more hazards. Risk and vulnerability are assessed regularly to capture granular data on the estimated number of people requiring responses to multiple shocks. There are defined triggers that induce relevant agencies to initiate a shock response, which includes guidelines on the amount and coverage for mainshock(s).
Other effective measures include the fact that a protocol is in place for updating the registry or relevant database regularly and that a coordinated government-run program(s) is present nationally without fragmentation or overlap. The amounts of benefits provided compensate for people's potential consumption because there are formal guidelines and standards in place. Communication mechanisms are in place that can be leveraged in times of a shock to inform the affected population or target beneficiaries about response programs. Communication channels include a mix of cell phones, TV/radio, newspapers and other print media, as well as local community leaders. Multiple mechanisms are used to ensure that everyone among the target population is enrolled for benefits and/or compensation.
The system is both inclusive and flexible. It is sensitive to the major constraints faced by women and includes strategies to mitigate their constraints and improve their access. Multiple systems are in place so that payments can be made rapidly for all shocks and the fact that for different shocks different payment systems may be necessary can be taken into account. Furthermore, there are multiple ways to register complaints and track of the complaint resolution process. After complaint resolution, there is follow-up with beneficiaries to get their feedback.
Overall, ASP can be established through improvements in four building blocks: (i) institutional arrangements and partnerships, (ii) programs and delivery systems, (iii) data and information, and (iv) finance.
ASP prioritizes providing the population most vulnerable to shocks with access to safety net programs. Once the foundation of ASP is laid, it allows tremendous flexibility. Programs can be tweaked to reach different areas and populations as deemed necessary. The amounts and coverage of benefits can also be adjusted as needed. Depending upon the impact of a shock, small adjustments can be made to a routine social protection program (for example, by waiving conditionalities and altering the payment schedule). The value or duration of a social protection intervention can be temporarily increased to meet the additional needs of existing beneficiaries. This is possible when there is good coverage of a disaster-affected area and also of the neediest of households. Similarly, new beneficiaries from disaster-affected communities can be temporarily included in a social protection program by extending geographic coverage, enrolling more eligible households in existing areas, and altering the enrollment criteria. A part of an established system or program can be used to deliver something new as part of an emergency response.
Barriers to integration
The integration of ASP into the traditional social protection system can determine how the government leads and implements a response plan. While ASP sounds appealing, even exciting, integrating it into the current system is challenging. One of the bottlenecks to integration is institutional. In Nepal, social protection, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction have all emerged separately – and often at different times – and, as a result, they are embedded in different ministries. Disaster falls mainly under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration while climate change is under the Ministry of Forests and Environment. Social protection programs are covered by multiple ministries, including those of Women and Children, Labor, Federal Affairs and General Administration, and Sports. The involvement of many agencies means each one has little knowledge of the others’ activities, resulting in unnecessary duplication or gaps in terms of geographic and beneficiary coverage. Even the international commitments for these issues are separate, including as they do the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Even so, there are platforms for integration.
Legislative bottlenecks exist as well. There are different acts, policies, and strategic action plans for disaster, climate and social protection. These pieces of legislation are not necessarily complementary or well-aligned. Most legislative documents do recognize the need for inter-agency coordination or protection of vulnerable groups, including women children and people with disabilities, but do not go beyond these observations.
Another hindrance is technical shortcomings. Disaster, climate, and social protection are each a vast topic on their own and requiring separate experts for analysis. Regarding climate change, future projections differ according to the assumptions, limitations and scenarios embraced, a fact which can further complicate matters. Specialization in all three topics is rare, so a high degree of interdisciplinary studies and collaboration is necessary. Furthermore, political commitment is pivotal in starting a conversation about ASP. Unstable politics, lack of long-term political commitment, and the fact that political systems are prone to change every five years while climate change and other shocks remain the same further add to the complexity of the issue.
The road ahead
While research is going on regarding the implementation of ASP in different contexts in different countries, foolproof formula for success is not evident at this point. However, starting a discussion about ASP is the first step. Nepal can learn from other countries with regard to the integration of ASP into the current system and practices. In Rwanda, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and social protection are being integrated through the “Vision 2020 Umurenge Program”. Under this program, cash transfers are provided to households with adults who are not able to work due to disability or other concerns, while those with an able-bodied member are encouraged to participate in public works projects, which themselves are designed to support adaptation and disaster risk reduction. They include constructing anti-erosive ditches and hillside terraces. The World Bank has also been promoting ASP in Nepal and elsewhere. It has planned to develop a South Asia Region Adaptive Social Protection Report which will help guide future work on ASP in each country and unlock opportunities for cross-country dialogue as well.
Nepal can benefit b collaborating and coordinating with a wider array of agencies and humanitarian actors.It can expand the coverage of its social registries and focus on the inclusion of high-risk households. As the country is setting up a database system, interoperability and data privacy should be the topmost priorities. It can develop risk-financing strategies to ensure funding for response programs is readily available in a timely manner. Investment in delivery systems and contingency planning could be promoted to enable the effective delivery of response programs after a shock. Scanning and troubleshooting the current system would be effective in bridging gaps in coverage of vulnerable populations. Integrated and layered programs could be designed for poor and vulnerable households in disaster hotspots. As Nepal chooses the road to ASP, taking some small but vital steps towards improving the system would go a long way in improving its response to shocks and building the resilience of its people.
(Dr. Gautam is an Independent Researcher and Consultant. He is associated with the National Disaster Risk Reduction Centre (NDRC) Nepal as Senior Research Fellow and HARDI/Western Sydney University as Adjunct Fellow. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pyakurelh as a major in climate change and works in the field of environment, disaster risk reduction and climate change. She can be reached through email@example.com)