Submitted by Zoë Scott
16 Mar 2022

Anticipatory action, shock-responsive social protection and cash transfers in ASEAN: what are we learning and where do we go next?

South-East Asia is one of the most risk-prone regions in the world, with countries exposed to climate-related hazards including floods, storms, typhoons, droughts and extreme temperatures. Climate change is therefore a major concern for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as it is expected to make these disasters more frequent and intense, stretching aid budgets even more thinly.

Technological advances are making it easier than ever to forecast these natural hazards. However, with the growing availability of such information comes a growing responsibility to act on it. Encouragingly, two approaches – anticipatory action and shock-responsive social protection – are currently enjoying centre stage in humanitarian and development discussions, both in the ASEAN region and around the globe.

For example, anticipatory action was a hot topic at COP 26 and the German government has confirmed it is on the agenda for this year’s G7. Meanwhile COVID-19 provided the impetus for governments in several low- and middle-income countries to experiment with using social protection systems and programmes for the first time, as a way to get emergency cash transfers to people in need.

So, where do we go from here? The current wave of enthusiasm for these approaches is great, but now is the time to reflect and consider what we have learned over recent years – and make sure we know where we are heading. FAO’s Regional Office for the Asia-Pacific has done this through an independent evaluation of a programme that aimed to promote and institutionalize anticipatory action and shock-responsive social protection in the ASEAN region.

Scaling up forecast-based financing/early warning early action and shock-responsive social protection with innovative use of climate-risk information for disaster resilience in ASEAN

This programme on anticipatory action and shock-responsive social protection aimed to promote and institutionalize these approaches in the region, including from a sustainable financing perspective. In addition, it provided cash transfers to 10,000 households in response to COVID-19, testing the implementation of shock-responsive social protection and learning from the experience. The programme was run in collaboration with the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UN Women, Save the Children, People In Need, Dan Church Aid and the German Red Cross, and supported by the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG-ECHO).

The evaluation, which comprised a regional study and four country case studies, found that significant progress has been made, specifically in developing a regional policy-level framework and sensitizing governments and other actors to these approaches. But the evaluation also uncovered some surprising and challenging questions for the global community working to improve hazard anticipation and response. Can you, hand on heart, answer these questions positively?

Do people know what you’re talking about?

Throughout the evaluation there was confusion about terminology. Is ‘anticipatory action’ different from ‘preparedness’? Is it the same as ‘early action’? How early does this support have to be to count as ‘early’? Is 'shock-responsive social protection’ just another name for emergency cash transfers? What is ex-ante shock-responsive social protection and how is it different from ex-post shock-responsive social protection? Can you have ‘anticipatory’ shock-responsive social protection?

Confusion over terminology creates a genuine barrier to progress. We can do better: we need to collaborate on some agreed international definitions and stick to them rigorously, rehearsing them at every opportunity.

Do you really know the best way to pay for it?

There are a range of different financial instruments that could pay for anticipatory action and shock-responsive social protection, but understanding of these options – and when they might be beneficial – is relatively low. In the ASEAN region, funding for anticipatory action still comes primarily from humanitarian and donor agencies, rather than government budgets. Those working to access government budgets are predominantly trying to figure out how to access post-disaster funds in advance of a shock, and often find they need public financial management reforms to enable this.

Few countries have robust disaster risk financing strategies that link to shock-responsive social protection or anticipatory action and explain where the money will come from, or how different instruments (e.g., risk transfer mechanisms such as insurance) can be used most effectively.

The effectiveness of shock-responsive social protection and anticipatory action hinges on the timely release of finance, so this cannot be an afterthought. Much more attention needs to be paid to how funds can be pre-arranged, so they are triggered at the appropriate time. This includes supporting reforms of public financial management in countries, so that funds can flow unobstructed through government systems.

How can you convince governments of the benefits?

While governments have started to ‘put their money where their mouth is’ by funding shock-responsive social protection in response to COVID-19, we cannot assume that this will become the norm. As mentioned, while ASEAN governments are growing in their understanding of and support for anticipatory action, this hasn’t yet led to government sponsorship of this approach in most countries.

Humanitarian actors are still the main advocates for these approaches at present, but our collective aim must be for these to become owned, led and funded priorities for governments. In particular, governments are not yet sufficiently convinced around the reliability of forecasts. One priority, therefore, is to bolster technical skills in forecasting.

Another priority is to be smarter about generating evidence and proving the effectiveness of these approaches. What evidence and incentives do governments really need to be convinced, and to reform their internal processes, budgets, public financial mechanisms and emergency planning so that they are more anticipatory and effective? What are the barriers and limitations? How can we overcome these, if at all? How can regional cooperation help?

We would love to hear your responses to these questions – and so invite you to join us for an open webinar at which we will discuss our experiences. We will also share many more findings from the evaluation, including barriers and enablers for anticipatory action and shock-responsive social protection, and the impact of cash transfers following COVID-19.

The event will be co-hosted by the ASEAN Secretariat, in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Regional technical working group on anticipatory action and support from the European Union. Full details will be shared soon.


This blog was written by Zoë Scott, an independent consultant for FAO.