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Researching how social services can better adapt to external shocks

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Debbie Hillier

We are leading a five-year research programme, called Maintains, focusing on supporting the management of shocks such as floods, droughts, disease outbreaks and population displacement. The programme aims to transform the evidence base on how health, education, nutrition, and social protection systems can adapt and expand to become more resilient to shocks, whilst maintaining existing services.

Enhanced evidence and practice from six focal countries including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and Uganda will inform policy and practice globally. Research in these countries will assess:

  • how shocks impact the delivery of social services in low- and middle-income countries
  • the extent to which the delivery of social services can be flexible to respond as a system rather than in independent parts
  • how the delivery of social services can be improved to reach those most in need during natural disasters

The challenge

Disasters and shocks such as floods, droughts, and cyclones already force 26 million people into poverty and cost an estimated $60 billion every year. Disasters disproportionately affect the poor and most vulnerable, such as children, women, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Climate shocks further disrupt the delivery of essential social services to those most in need, and inevitably lead to higher poverty rates, reduced economic development, and poorer human development outcomes across affected countries and regions.

Countries have increasingly recognised the need to ensure their populations are more resistant to external shocks. However, despite these efforts, there has been no systematic learning from existing shock responsive programmes, nor plans to evaluate whether the systems that have been put in place actually work.

Our approach

Improving social services' ability to respond more quickly, reliably, and effectively to shocks is a key objective for Maintains. Ultimately, this will lead to better health, education, and nutrition outcomes for affected populations, especially the poorest and most vulnerable people. Maintains will also explore the impact of shocks and service responses on gender and equity and assess how disaster risk financing should be designed to support a swift, reliable, and cost-effective response.

We will do this by:

  • Researching the impact of climate shocks on the delivery of essential social services to build a robust base of empirical evidence
  • Providing targeted support through technical assistance to six focal countries to help design or adapt programmes to be more shock-responsive
  • Promoting research uptake activities to disseminate the findings across the wider international community

These elements work together to ensure that policy engagement, communications, and technical assistance support and strengthen the research process to deliver research that is relevant and responds to user demand; accessible and engaging; and actionable, providing practical insights for public and private sector stakeholders.

Maintains country case studies

Maintains will work in six countries, seeking insights and lessons to influence thinking and practice within - and beyond - these countries. In conducting these studies, Maintains will work directly with national governments and other development partners. The research will build on and enhance existing evidence and address knowledge gaps to support responses to shocks.

  • Bangladesh: focusing on social protection

Well-designed social protection is proven to support vulnerable people during crises. In Bangladesh, Maintains will explore the shock responsiveness of current formal and informal social protection systems and investigate how to optimise their design, organisation, and operationalisation.

  • Ethiopia: focusing on health and nutrition systems

Maintains in Ethiopia will generate evidence on the importance of the community health workforce for shock responses. In particular, it will look at the impact of adding additional health extension workers and the roles they play in supporting the preparation for, and responses to, shocks.

  • Kenya: focusing on health, nutrition, and social protection

To improve the effectiveness of social protection and other interventions in time of shock, research will explore how to design and roll-out an enhanced single registry. Maintains will also investigate how health and nutrition systems can better respond to shocks, by further understanding early warning systems and financing flows. It will seek to apply lessons from existing shock-responsive nutrition programmes.

  • Pakistan: focusing on health, nutrition, and social protection

In Pakistan, the programme will investigate how social protection, nutrition, and health systems can be more responsive to shocks, by drawing lessons from how these systems provided essential services during the recent flooding and drought. This work will also inform analysis around the need for greater connection between development and humanitarian approaches to nutrition, and how social protection targeting can be optimised for shocks.

  • Sierra Leone: focusing on health

Research will explore how the health system can continue to provide existing services, while managing new demands from shocks, such as during floods and disease outbreaks. It will also look at the economic and financial costs of health shocks, how they are currently being financed, and how financing arrangements can be improved.

  • Uganda: focusing on education, health, and nutrition

In West Nile, Maintains will undertake a study of the implementation, delivery, and impact
of the Education Response Plan for refugees and host communities. In Karamoja, research will focus on how lessons from nutrition surge programming can be adopted into health systems, with a particular focus on how early warning data can be used to plan for and respond to shocks.

Outcomes and wider impacts

Maintains will develop a strong evidence base on how to deliver social services that are not only resilient to disasters, but that can also expand and adapt in response to changing needs during and after shocks.