Australia’s development program
Social protection’s role in health, stability and economic recovery
Temporary income replacement via cash transfers and food distribution is essential if people are to abide by lockdown orders and limit the spread of the virus, rather than be forced to seek work in risky conditions so that their families can eat.
Cash transfers can help facilitate greater affordability for poor and vulnerable people to seek testing, treatment and equipment to maintain personal hygiene (soap, facemasks etc).
Social protection programs can often be used to convey essential public health information and messaging to the most vulnerable.
Social protection transfers can generate trust in state institutions, especially in fragile or post-conflict contexts, or during times of social upheaval. Social protection programs can quell social unrest by redistributing wealth and reducing poverty and inequality, to minimise hardship caused by economic reforms.
Well-designed social protection measures can play a role in strengthening social cohesion and can strengthen citizens’ confidence in government when programs are delivered effectively and equitably. At the same time, poorly-implemented measures that fail to provide timely support to those who need it can undermine trust in government and increase social tensions. Australia’s support in many countries is focused on building the underlying systems for beneficiary identification, payments and complaints handling, to make social protection responses more effective, equitable and evidence-based.
Effectively addressing the needs of the most vulnerable provides the bedrock for social cohesion. Many social protection schemes explicitly target members of society who are most vulnerable to falling into poverty, including women, children, people with disabilities and the elderly, to ensure they are protected from hardship and share in economic growth.
Social protection measures extend economic lifelines to individuals, families and businesses, essential to cushion the impact of shocks and help people and economies bounce back once a crisis has passed. Cash transfers to families and vulnerable people are essential during crisis to maintain investment in human capital. Without them, families may not be able to eat, or be forced to sell the assets they rely on for their livelihoods. These may have lifelong negative effects on child nutrition and human development and make it more difficult for families to recover economically.
Broad based cash transfers provide economic stimulus to keep local markets operating and ensure continued demand for goods and services. Cash-for-work programs can provide employment, local investment and economic stimulus. Wage subsidies, like Australia’s JobKeeper, help to ensure people have jobs to return to as economies reopen. Social protection schemes can also be linked with provision of productive assets and skills training, to improve livelihoods and provide pathways back to employment. Our social protection efforts also provide an opportunity to contribute to gender equality and empowerment of women and girls by tailoring support for women across their lifecycle, as critical actors in economic recovery.
Social protection will continue to play a vital role in the return to prosperity of countries in our region. Well-functioning social protection systems can help to protect the gains generated by growth from shock erosion. Social protection is an investment in human capital and productivity. In normal times, programs are designed help families eat healthy food, access health treatment, and send their children to school. Social protection can (and should) represent a substantial portion of government spending. We can work with partner governments to ensure social protection expenditure represents sufficient investment to achieve development outcomes, and that programs are well designed to achieve the best return on that investment.
Supporting our neighbours to build their social protection systems in response to the current crisis will also enhance their resilience to future shocks. In countries where Australia has had long-term engagement on social protection, we have helped to build the systems our neighbours are now relying on to deliver support to their citizens. These countries will be more resilient to this crisis due to our past and current support.
In turn, the systems we help to build now in response to the COVID-19 crisis can be deployed for future crises and economic shocks. This is especially relevant for our disaster-prone region.
DFAT’s country-level investments in social protection support the focus areas of Australia’s development approach, Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response.