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Chapter 9 Livelihoods and DRR

Social protection and safety nets

Photo: ODI

Livelihood support can come through a range of interventions to defend households and communities against hazards, as well as through wider social protection initiatives aimed at reducing the economic and social vulnerability of poor, marginalised and excluded individuals or households experiencing transitory livelihood hardship or long-term, chronic, poverty. Social protection can take a variety of forms, including policies and programmes to promote employment and protect jobs (e.g. skills training, micro-credit services), income support, pensions, social insurance (for unemployment, ill health, disability, injury and old age) and direct transfers of cash, food or other resources (see Chapter 12 for other financial mechanisms that support DRR).

Safety nets are a particular form of shorter-term social protection. They play a vital role in helping people to meet their immediate needs in different kinds of crisis and protecting them against falling back into long-term poverty as a result of the losses they suffer. They have been established in many countries in response to shocks and pressures of different kinds (for an example, see Case Study 9.4: Creating a national social safety net). In disasters they often focus on cash transfers, the provision of food (e.g. through supplementary feeding programmes or food stamps) and public works that provide employment and income.

Case Study 9.4 Creating a national safety net

Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) was set up in 2005 following a series of droughts. Initiated and implemented by the Ethiopian government through regional and local administrations, it uses community mechanisms (based on criteria set by the government) to identify beneficiaries and promote local ownership and accountability. It is supported by several international donor agencies.

The programme is one of the largest social safety nets in Sub-Saharan Africa, making cash or food payments to 7.8m people who are chronically short of food. In return, recipients usually work on projects to benefit their communities, such as soil and water conservation, road building, reforestation and construction of clinics and schools; cash or food are given to people who are physically unable to work. The PSNP provides support to households for several months of the year for up to five years, ensuring that they can provide for their daily needs without having to sell off valuable assets, as well as giving them the time and opportunity to build up their livelihoods and overcome their need for external support.

The PSNP has a $25m contingency fund and a Risk Financing Mechanism (RFM) which allows the programme to expand in short-term crises. In 2011 the RFM was activated to help families cope with food shortages resulting from drought, assisting 9.6m people in districts covered by the PSNP (a third of whom were not existing PSNP clients) to obtain food for up to three months. The response was rapid: from initial request through needs verification to distribution took only six weeks.

The PSNP has been effective in reducing the amount of time households spend without food between harvests and improving wellbeing more generally. The income provided by the programme is a vital resource in building up livelihood assets. However, the programme cannot protect recipients fully against sudden and severe shocks, and many people not reached by the programme require emergency food aid each year.

C. Béné, S. Devereux and R. Sabates-Wheeler, Shocks and Social Protection in the Horn of Africa: Analysis from the Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, 2012),; DFID, Building Resilience in Ethiopia (London: Department for International Development, 2012); M. Hobson and L. Campbell, ‘How Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) Is Responding to the Current Crisis in the Horn’, Humanitarian Exchange, 53, 2012,, pp. 9–11; World Bank, Designing and Implementing a Rural Safety Net in a Low Income Setting: Lessons Learned from Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program 2005–2009 (Washington DC: World Bank, 2010),

By helping poor individuals and households to protect and strengthen their livelihoods and coping strategies, social protection programmes build resilience to future crises and shocks. They can also focus more specifically on DRR (e.g. through targeted public works programmes for soil and water conservation, road improvements and strengthening infrastructure) or protecting people in crisis (e.g. with cash, food and asset transfers or public works projects to provide employment).

National governments are the leading actors in formal social protection programmes, sometimes with support from international financial institutions and other international agencies. In certain circumstances, this level of capacity and financial resources can enable programmes to mobilise and expand operations to meet the immediate needs of large numbers of people in the event of a disaster. Countries with social protection systems in place before a shock may be able to cope better in such circumstances, but the ability of systems to respond varies considerably according to context and resources. Well-established programmes with extensive coverage and capacity for contingency planning and pre-positioning are more likely to be able to scale up effectively in disaster response, but systems still need to be well integrated with existing development and DRR planning, and the roles of implementing agencies need to be clearly defined and agreed.

Informal social protection draws on traditional coping strategies, social capital and community-based actions. These can be effective at local level, and in many cases they provide an important source of security, but their outreach may be limited. Different groups have access to different social and political networks and sources of support. These networks may be strong or weak in a crisis. They may also compete with one another over access to social protection support and other forms of aid.

There has been considerable debate about how social protection and safety net programmes will adapt to the unpredictable weather patterns and extreme weather events associated with climate change. Those that focus on purely economic interventions will probably have to take a wider developmental approach that puts more emphasis on issues such as public accountability, social vulnerability, exclusion and marginalisation and equity and rights. There is plenty of scope for further integration of social protection mechanisms with DRR and climate change adaptation on the ground, and much to be learnt about the best approaches.