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COVID-19: Investing in social protection critical for Africa to build back better

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COVID-19: Investing in social protection critical for Africa to build back better

Providing cash and food could reduce people’s vulnerability and promote greater equality, says UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
From Africa Renewal: 
24 March 2021
Investing in social protection critical for Africa to build back better after COVID-19

Although Africa has seen relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared with other continents, its citizens have been hit hard by the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. 

African countries are experiencing an unprecedented economic downturn with a dramatic effect on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The continent has headed towards its first economic recession in 25 years, with a contraction of 1.6 per cent in the gross domestic product growth in 2020. In sub‑Saharan Africa, growth was projected to contract by 3.3 per cent in 2020, halting a decade of economic progress. 

Lockdown measures and the economic recession have increased unemployment, poverty, food insecurity and inequality. 

60 million jobs lost in Africa

An estimated 60 million full-time equivalent jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2020 across the continent, including 45 million in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Up to an additional 40 million people were pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2020 in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Governments have taken many social protection measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

In response to the pandemic, African governments have intervened by introducing or adapting over 200 social protection measures, which are policies and programmes designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability. 

The measures taken by African governments consist mostly of cash or food given to people or small businesses whose incomes have been badly impacted by the pandemic. 

Other cushioning actions include allowing people to postpone the payment of their water and electricity bills, covering the payment of these utility bills, and paying the salaries of workers in the private sector if their employers are unable to do so. 

The measures reduce people's vulnerability to economic and social risks, as well as enhance their capacity to manage such risks as unemployment, exclusion, sickness, disability and old age. Social protection promotes greater equality.

Many sub-Saharan African countries have instituted new programmes or adjusted existing ones to cover a wider section of the population and, in some cases, increased the benefits paid.

Further investments in social protection will be critical in helping African nations to build back better

Although some of the measures taken by African governments were temporary, they have shown the strength of resilience that social protection can help to support. 

Going forward, African countries should build on these temporary measures and strengthen social protection for the long-term. 

Further investments in social protection will be critical in helping African nations to build back better, stronger and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

While governments can use primarily domestic resources such as taxes and social security contributions, they could also increase public spending for social protection through multilateral development co-operation as well as national and regional multi-sectoral partnerships. 

Development partners have been urged to support these efforts, particularly for the poorest countries with limited fiscal space. 

On his part, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said global solidarity with Africa is an imperative – now, and for recovering better.

“The United Nations, and I personally, stand in total solidarity with the people and governments of Africa, and with the African Union, in tackling COVID-19,” said Mr. Guterres. 

Ultimately, countries should aim for universal social protection through nationally-defined policies and programmes that protect all people throughout their lives against poverty and risks to their livelihoods and well-being to ensure that no one is left behind. 

“Social protection has played a critical role in curbing the devastating socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the African continent. As its countries struggle to recover from the pandemic, which has hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest, expanding social protection can be a springboard into a more equity-oriented approach in the long term,” said Mr. Liu Zhenmin, the Under-Secretary-General of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA).

“UN DESA has been placing increased focus on these important policy options for shaping post-COVID-19 recovery in Africa, and across the globe. Indeed, building Member States’ capacities for implementing effective social protection systems will help facilitate a more resilient, people-centered path that aligns with the 2030 Agenda and leaves no one behind,” Mr. Liu  added. 


Governments should consider using the power of digital technology (such as mobile money platforms that are very popular in Africa) to deliver services quickly and safely, in a responsible way that respects individuals’ privacy. 

Governments should target the most vulnerable, including women, migrants, refugees and informal sector workers through initiatives organized by non-governmental and international organizations. They should also continue to search for innovative ways to provide social assistance through community-based organizations that encourage behavioural change to support public health objectives.

  • For more details, see the Policy Brief No. 93 “Social policy and social protection measures to build Africa better post-COVID-19” produced by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)
  • Watch the authors – Hantamalala Rafalimanana and Meron Sherif – share the main findings and recommendations of the Policy Brief during a Facebook Live discussion at the UN DESA “Let’s Talk” series ( 
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