Shock-responsive social protection systems research: Literature review

Oxford Policy Management Limited


What is the relationship between social protection, humanitarian and disaster risk management systems? This literature review consolidates current thinking and emerging evidence on this topic, including ways in which long-term social protection systems can be scaled up to provide support in humanitarian emergencies. The authors reviewed over 400 papers including peer-reviewed journal papers and open-access documents issued by donor agencies and research organisations. The study is global; however, region- and country-specific literature centres on the three focal regions, namely the Sahel, eastern / southern Africa and Asia.

Key findings

  •  After the occurrence of a shock households may resort to negative risk-coping behaviours including the depletion of assets such as the sale of livestock, reduction of food consumption, forced migration, or withdrawal of children from school.
  • Social protection and humanitarian assistance both make use of cash transfers and material assistance, but the review finds several important differences in how transfers are used in each case. There is potential to consolidate transfers that are meeting humanitarian needs in different sectors and streamline infrastructure. However some objectives of cash-based humanitarian assistance may continue to be best met through standalone transfers.
  • Shock-responsive social protection has the potential to integrate developmental and humanitarian work. Defining features include: flexibility, timeliness, adaptability and adequacy of resources; links to an established early warning system; coordination through a single central agency; secure financing to enable governments to invest and build systems; and partnerships with public, private and non-state actors.
  • In lower income countries social assistance programmes may be incorporated into the government’s budget but they continue to depend on donor financing. Any scaling-up of social protection is therefore likely to require external donor financing in the short to medium term.
  • Donors recognise the commitments to social protection are intrinsically political, but have not always engaged in political agendas.  There is an increased risk that interventions are perceived as externally imposed and gain little traction.  Political economy issues to consider include: how recipients of emergency assistance are identified, the value of assistance to be received, the institutional location of the emergency response, and the triggers by which funds are released.
  • Evidence on what has worked in shock-responsive social protection initiatives following a covariate shock comes mainly from countries affected by the food, fuel and financial crisis of 2008-9 and countries facing rapid and slow onset weather-related shocks. The adoption of second-best options, such as subsidies or school feeding, may offer a pragmatic response to future shock response, and be the most feasible and cost-efficient option where institutional weakness and limited existing systems constrain intervention options.

The review highlights a number of areas for future research including a look at which programmes work best in which circumstances and how should they be adapted to local conditions, and an exploration into the potential of alternative and second-best approaches to shock response, such as social insurance, social care services and subsidies (excepting fossil fuel subsidies).


OPML. (2016). DFID Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems research: Literature review. Oxford: Oxford Policy Management.