Pakistan, Cambodia and Indonesia responses to the COVID-19 crisis in the special issue of the Policy in Focus magazine

EEC programme beneficiaries in Mastung, Balochistan


The fourth and last section of the Policy in Focus1 magazine analyses the social protection responses to the COVID-19 crisis in Asian countries. 

It starts with the case of Pakistan. The national lockdown—which lasted two months and was implemented at the early stages of the pandemic—caused an unprecedented economic turmoil. In the article “Tackling poverty amidst COVID-19: How Pakistan’s emergency cash programme averted an economic catastrophe”, the Federal Minister and Special Assistant on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Sania Nishtar, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic represented a watershed period for the country in terms of government functioning.

In response to the economic impact of the pandemic, the Pakistani Government launched the Ehsaas Emergency Cash (EEC) programme, allocating USD 1.2 billion to deliver one-time emergency cash assistance to 16.9 million families at risk of extreme poverty. Each low-income household received a one-time payment of USD75—enough to buy staple food items for the next three months. 

The EEC programme expanded the digital infrastructure already in place – a biometric payment system, a demand-side SMS based request-seeking platform and a new wealth-profiling big data analytics mechanism—and was followed a hybrid targeting approach to identify beneficiaries. 

Nishtar emphasizes that “the legacy of this programme is not just short-term relief. EEC will be an important component of the redesign of social protection after COVID-19. Ehsaas is the main programme through which the government aims to build a welfare state. It has a total of 140 initiatives, with the objective to provide safety nets, financial access to health care, scholarships and incentives to students, livelihood opportunities, and financial and digital inclusion”. 

The use of technology was also a key factor for the social protection response in Cambodia.  While the health impact of the pandemic has remained limited in the country, the associated economic downturn hit important sectors such as exports, tourism, as well as foreign direct investments in construction. In the article “Cambodia’s social protection response to COVID-19”, Theng Pagnathun, Delegate of the Royal Government of Cambodia in charge of the Directorate-General of Planning, Sabine Cerceau (GIZ) and Emily de Riel discuss that the pandemic accelerated the expansion of the country’s first large-scale cash transfer programme, and has paved the way for future social protection programmes beyond the current crisis.

In 2017, the government of Cambodia launched the National Social Protection Policy Framework, a guiding, overarching government strategy for social protection until 2025. It set out a comprehensive set of social assistance services and social security schemes, including financing and governance mechanisms. The country also already had an identification system, known as “IDPoor”, which qualifies beneficiaries for a number of social services.

Although an important part of the necessary structure was already in place, much was learned in adapting and scaling up the programme, including in building the necessary data linkages, policies and roll-out strategies. 

The use of digital technologies was a key success factor, particularly in supporting implementation during a pandemic. “IDPoor” and the cash transfer programme both use digital technologies for data collection and management to ensure faster turnaround times. The use of tablets—donated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the German Development Agency (GIZ), on behalf of the Australian and German governments—reduced labour and paper for questionnaires, making data immediately available in a national database, therefore improving data quality and facilitating payments to beneficiaries.   

Closing the issue, the article “How to overcome the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Indonesia?”, by Fisca Aulia and Maliki, from the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning (BAPPENAS), aimed to shed light on what needs to be done for Indonesia to sustain its ongoing fight against poverty, and mitigate the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on poor people. 

Having effective social protection programmes in place to protect the most vulnerable is undeniably important, as is ensuring that those who most need assistance—the bottom 40 per cent of the income distribution—really receive it. To this end, the Indonesian government has issued a fiscal stimulus package in the form of expanded social assistance and increased benefit levels. The measures include cash transfers, food assistance and electricity subsidies. 

The authors point out that an integrated data system—encompassing all programmes offered by the central and local governments—is essential to ensure accurate targeting and that all households receive the appropriate intervention. Moreover, the full digitalisation of payment mechanisms and revision of the programme graduation concepts will be needed to ensure a social protection system more shock-responsive in the future. 

1“What's next for social protection in light of COVID-19: country responses” is a special issue of the Policy in Focus magazine that aims to disseminate key discussions of the global e-conference “Turning the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity: What’s next for social protection?”, held in October 2020 by the platform, in partnership with the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). For more information on the magazine, read the summary of all articles. To learn more on the responses from Latin America and the Caribbean to the COVID-19 crises, click here. For the responses from Middle East and Africa, click here.  


Photo: PASS website. EEC programme beneficiaries in Mastung, Balochistan.