Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic · 8 April, 2020

Social protection and COVID-19: opportunities and challenges in the region of the Central American Integration System

Virtual forum on reactive social protection against emergencies co-organised by the European Union Programme for social cohesion (EUROsociAL+), with the Secretariat for Central American Social Integration, SISCA, and the World Food Programme, WFP.

The first of a series of webinars organised by the EUROsociAL+ Programme and SISCA was held on 31 March. This is an initiative for dialogue and exchanges that aims to facilitate learning between countries on the responses of public policies to the social effects of the health measures adopted to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The exchanges focus on analysing designs, adjustments, decisions to improve, strategies and policy implementation results. The countries of the region (especially public institutions), one or more speakers from European countries, and the United Nations agency specialised in the subject matter are involved in each dialogue.

The title of the first event, “Social Protection and COVID-19: opportunities and challenges in the SICA region”, referred to a study carried out last year by the World Food Programme (shock-responsive social protection in Latin America and the Caribbean). Its objective is to generate evidence and report on how to strengthen emergency preparedness and responses based on more flexible national social protection systems. The web-event was the occasion to learn first-hand and in real time about how some governments in the region have already implemented measures to respond to the Covid-19 emergency and to mitigate economic impacts through social protection. Some of these measures are the expansion of social programmes, advance payments, incorporation of new beneficiaries, flexibility of the co-responsibilities of programmes, subsidies, and tax returns, among others. Some countries have also adjusted their school meal programmes, based on the challenge presented by the closure of schools.

The event was opened with welcoming remarks from SISCA secretary general, Alfredo Suarez, the regional director of WFP, Miguel Barreto and the head of cooperation with the European Union Delegation in Nicaragua and to the SICA, Laurent Sillano. They reminded us of the importance of social protection programmes, dialogue and the exchange of experiences in the face of the dramatic effects that the pandemic is having at the health, social and economic level.

Simone Cecchini, from the Social Development Division of ECLAC, referred to the economic consequences of the pandemic in Latin America. According to ECLAC projections, such economic contraction could impact poverty rates, which would go from 29.8% to 35.4% (from 185 million people now to approximately 220 million people) while extreme poverty would jump from 10.8% to 14.5% (from 67.4 million to 90 million people). This means that by the end of 2020, the region could have regressed on these two indicators by 13 years and 15 years, respectively. This issue was analysed by Ana Solorzano, from the WFP, who highlighted the need for a rethinking of different national social programmes to meet the needs of vulnerable groups, in the immediate phase of the emergency response (so that everyone stays at home and is in the position to do so), as well as in the medium term, to prevent or mitigate the negative economic impacts of the crisis.

Next, the representatives of some governments in the region shared the measures that their countries are taking in the face of this emergency: Susana Correa Borrero, director general of the Administrative Department for Social Prosperity, shared the COVID-19 emergency social measures the Government of Colombia is implementing based on various existing social programmes such as “families in action”, “supportive income” and through a VAT refund; Héctor Medina, deputy director of Progressing with Solidarity of the Dominican Republic, presented the vertical expansion strategy to temporarily include in the “Eat First” Programme for families in poverty or vulnerability situations, so they can receive a two-month cash transfer; Leonardo Sánchez, director of Equity Programmes of the Ministry of Education of Costa Rica, shared the general protocol to adapt school meals programmes in response to the closure of schools due to the COVID-19 national emergency; Irma Yolanda Núñez, social policy coordinator of the Office of the Presidential Commissioner for Operations and the Government Cabinet of El Salvador, referred to a past experience, when her country readjusted some social protection programmes to respond to an emergency caused by drought, and how these practices can be repeated in the current context.

Finally, the EUROsociAL expert, Fabio Boscherini, referred to the measures implemented by the Italian government, highlighting the need for a coordinated response in all three dimensions of the emergency – health, economic and social – and showed how, in Italy (and Spain and other European countries), job protection, income security (for everyone) and liquidity for companies are being prioritised. He ended with a mention of the fundamental role of civil society in enhancing the capacity for social protection action, a force which is important for public powers to value.

Two hundred and forty people participated in the web-event, including representatives of government institutions from SICA countries, officials from UN agencies and experts. Moderation was undertaken by Rodolfo Beazley, senior expert in social protection at Oxford Policy Management and co-author of the study “Shock-responsive social protection in Latin America and the Caribbean” along with Ana Solorzano and Valentina Barca.

Country: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic
SDG: Good health & well-being, Partnerships for the goals
Policy area: Social policies