What if early warning systems are used to trigger social protection measures in times of crisis?

Blog by Ronald Jackson and Sára Csapó, Disaster Risk Reduction Team for Building Resilience at UNDP Geneva

October 13, 2022
A photo of two laughing children wearing traditional Mongolian dress in a field with cashmere goats.

Two laughing children in Mongolia

Credits: Nicolas Petit, UNDP

This What If…? is the fourth publication of an exploratory series released throughout the week of this years’ International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction which takes place on October 13 2022 under the theme of “early warning and early action for all”. Building upon the work of the Regional Bureau for Asia Pacific Horizon Scanning initiative, the series uses foresight to invite consideration of the risks and uncertainties that will impact countries’ abilities to be better prepared for more complex crises and disasters in the region.


Social protection as a development tool that reduces poverty and inequality is taking the center stage in humanitarian and development discussions and practice as more and more it is being leveraged to help households recover faster from disasters. However, despite progress across Asia-Pacific, almost 56 percent of the population is still not covered by any form of social protection in the region, which means that when shocks occur, individuals must fend for themselves instead of being able to rely on the government for adequate support. 

The growing scale of the impact of natural hazard events and the implications of climate change, the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing inflation urge governments to strengthen their social protection systems alongside investment in early warning systems. In light of these necessities, the last piece of this week’s blog series explores what if early warning systems are used to triggers the allocation of resources associated with social protection measures for preparedness and preventative actions in times of crisis?

The future of social protection

In the absence of modern and responsive social safety nets, households tend to resort to negative coping strategies such as selling assets, reducing food consumption, taking on loans at high interest rates and pulling children out of school in the wake of disasters. Unintended consequences of these negative coping approaches can include food insecurity and threaten progress made in education as well as poverty reduction

Social safety nets that are also themselves shock responsive can mitigate the risks of losing development gains by providing protection against two types of shocks; individual ones and shocks affecting populations widely. For instance, programmes can guarantee affordable health care services to the ageing population, and illness benefits to sick people who temporarily stop working. Most recently, social protection also played a key role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rapid measures were essential in order to mitigate the effects of nationwide lockdowns on social and economic life, and therefore countries across Asia-Pacific delivered as a tool that reduces poverty and inequality scaled up cash assistance through their existing social protection programmes or introduced new protection schemes. The primary objectives were to ensure the capacity of health systems remained intact and households were protected from disruption of income generation. Social protection is meant to be an important part of an effective economic stimulus package to avoid widening inequality and a halt in economic growth amidst the uncertainty of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

Cash transfers in humanitarian assistance: a new risk reduction strategy?

Cash assistance is becoming a popular component of the humanitarian toolbox. When early warning triggered forecast-based financing prior to the 2020 flooding in Bangladesh, unconditional multi-purpose cash grants were transferred to beneficiaries as an early action, which helped evacuation, reduced loss of livestock, beneficiary groups reported less health problems and households did not have to sell their assets. In Mongolia, cash transfer ahead of the dzud in 2017 shows similar results of higher animal survival rate, less loans and reduced disruption in livelihood activities

Forecast-based financing is linked to and enhances early warning systems through improved forecasting mechanisms and prepositioned funds. Once a warning is issued, pre-defined triggers go off and automatically release the funds so anticipatory cash transfers can take place. Automatic triggers with adequate disaster risk financing strategies therefore facilitate the connection between early warning systems, anticipatory action and programmatic response. For instance, early warning systems can detect early signs of economic, climate and security changes and inform social protection programmes accordingly

When thresholds are exceeded, social protection can leverage its existing administrative structures and delivery mechanisms to channel anticipatory cash assistance prior to the occurrence of a hazardous event. If these linkages are strengthened, such a system can enhance individual preparedness and late-stage preventative measures, minimize delays in response and allow households to better absorb the potential impacts of shocks by protecting livelihood activities and ensuring business continuity even in crisis situations.


A system deepening inequalities?

Although anticipatory cash assistance through national social protection systems sounds worthwhile, there are some significant challenges to bear in mind. Firstly, the digital gap across Asia-Pacific, raised in ‘What if technological innovation is the future of inclusive early warning systems’, means that if electronic systems are used for cash transfer, not everyone will have access to these platforms. In Pakistan, during the COVID-19 pandemic response, those who were not existing social protection beneficiaries had to register online and they got the verification for payment eligibility through text messages. Therefore, families without mobile phones and internet connection were denied the opportunity to enroll. In other cases cash can be collected from ATMs or post offices, but communities living in remote, rural areas without any means of transportation are unable to get to these pick-up points in time.

Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed inaccurate targeting of the social protection programmes across Asia-Pacific. The digital divide is serving to deepen vulnerabilities. This is even more acute where informal settlers living in urban slums, refugees, and people working in informal sectors are not part of the national databases. These groups are thus an invisible segment of the population to social protection systems

Without nationwide coverage of social registries and non-discriminatory digital ID systems, the exclusion of impoverished groups undermines the key principle of development, which is to leave no one behind. While shock responsive social protection programmes linked to early warning systems could be a real breakthrough in terms of supporting preparedness and in cases preventative actions for the most vulnerable, strong reliance on technology and errors in national databases risk deepening existing inequalities.

There is no doubt that social protection can serve as a shock buffering system that provides citizens with a sense of safety and security amidst uncertain times and enhances trust in governments. Institutionalizing the link between safety net programmes and early warning systems can cultivate risk-awareness and inclusive growth, facilitate a system-wide transition to early actions, and build community resilience in the face of cascading and interconnected risks.