Why Informal Social Protection could be the missing piece in the Covid Response

May 22, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

As part of their Masters in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies, LSE students do a consultancy for aid agencies and others. Here Chiara Jachia, Natalie Schwarz, Hanna Toda and Anjuman Tanha discuss the Covid implications of their consultancy on Informal Social Protection. Oxfam’s Larissa Pelham (contact larissa.pelham[at] if you want to know more about its work) introduces their project:

‘Informal social protection has been important to Oxfam’s social protection work, from food storage systems to remittances. We wanted to invigorate the discussion for supporting positive aspects of the informal systems in the way that we engage with communities and to start us off, in 2019, we asked a group of LSE students to undertake some research. Here they reflect on the implications of their research for response to COVID-19.’

Crisis-affected people aren’t helpless. Although they’re often portrayed as passive ‘beneficiaries’ of aid, affected populations are the first responders to a crisis, taking action before the arrival of any external help or international aid. Founded on social connections, community members exchange resources and look after each other through systems of mutual assistance groups, including savings groups or seed sharing groups, as well as remittances. Remittances eclipse aid flows in many low and middle-income countries, amounting to $529 billion in 2019.

There’s still a lot that we don’t know about ISP and there’s a good reason for why we need to understand these mechanisms better: They can increase households’ resilience against shocks, particularly in countries that lack government-funded social security programs. While humanitarian organizations and donors often tend to overlook the importance of these practices and favor more formal approaches to disaster response. The current crisis of COVID-19 shows just what a mistake downplaying ISP can be.

COVID-19 and the dangers of overlooking ISP

When it comes to the Covid response, informal support networks can be both problem and solution.

Traditional sharing of resources through mutual assistance groups increases the risk of spreading the virus. Not understanding these networks can pose a serious challenge to humanitarians when identifying and tracing infection.

Informal mechanisms can help people get through the crisis, but social distancing threatens the social connections that are the foundations of such systems.

COVID-19 also undermines people’s access to support provided by remittances. This is especially true for migrants in the informal economy who are excluded from formal insurance systems and more likely to lose their jobs. Those who work in places that lack effective hygiene protocols, such as construction, are also exposed to greater risk of infection. These issues not only increase migrants’ vulnerabilities but also undermine their ability to remit money to their families. Hand-carried remittances are especially affected by movement restrictions and payments via money transfer agencies become impossible when shops close. Understanding the (in-)capacity of remittances to provide social protection is key to explain people’s suffering in humanitarian crises.

Improving COVID-19 crisis response with ISP

Recognizing informal social protection and how it can engage and support more formal social protection responses is key to a better COVID-19 response. Humanitarian INGOs should consider:

  • addressing the negative effects social distancing has on social connectedness. Here, digital devices (such as mobile phones) could play an interesting role to promote social relationships.
  • using mutual assistance groups as an entry point to reach marginalized community members for in-kind and cash distribution and to facilitate awareness spreading.
  • identifying and mapping mutual assistance groups to understand the social networks revolving around them for case detection and contact tracing of infected people.
  • engaging social networks to disseminate life saving information on COVID-19. Influential members, such as religious or community leaders, can circulate up-to-date public health information, which should be designed in digital formats such as radio programs, audio drama or animation for easy distribution, and access to digital resources should be enhanced.
  • increasing assistance to households that are dependent on remittances.
  • strengthening telecommunications infrastructures and advocating for relaxing money-laundering regulations as a response to movement restrictions and mobile money agency closures to facilitate money transfers. Many payments are still made in person at small shops that operate as money agencies or transferred by planes. With no airplanes flying, remittances carried by passengers are shrinking. Moreover, recipients struggle with collecting remittances during lockdowns.
  • recognizing that remitters are experiencing social and financial pressures. It’s important to help not only the receivers of remittances but also the senders to overcome their challenges.

ISP clearly has the capacity to support and protect, and most importantly, it’s a pre-existing system trusted by community members. So, why not build on the fact that these practices are deeply embedded within communities and perhaps consider how existing support mechanisms that are based on social connectedness and trust can be harnessed in humanitarian aid?The ultimate question will be whether humanitarian actors are willing to work with informal community mechanisms when scaling up interventions and if so, how they’ll bolster these systems without overstepping or creating divisions.

If you would like a copy of the full consultancy report, please email Natalie Schwarz,

May 22, 2020
Duncan Green