How East African countries extended social protection to children at the height of COVID-19

Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan designed emergency interventions to cover children at the height of Covid-19 infections, a study has revealed.

The Africa Platform for Social Protection, in collaboration with Save the Children, conducted a study on social protection interventions targeting children in East Africa during Covid-19, with the goal of generating evidence for child-sensitive social protection programmes in the region, during the pandemic.

The research provided an understanding of the nature of the Covid-19 emergency interventions and the challenges in implementing them. It found that governments in the region, with the support of their development partners, offered alternatives to in-person learning during the school closures.

According to Unicef, South Sudan offered 32,000 solar-powered radios to vulnerable households. The radios helped to reach at least 160,000 children with lessons broadcast by the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation and Radio Miraya.  

In addition to radio, Kenya and Uganda responded by providing instruction to out-of-school children in remote areas through printed learning packages distributed through newspapers, postal service, teachers, and school leaders. According to the World Bank, Uganda distributed about four million learning packages to students within the first two months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Teachers were also trained in identifying and protecting vulnerable children, supporting their re-enrolment and monitoring their re-integration in schools.

According to the study, Covid-19 lockdowns led to loss of parents’ incomes. The global impact of the pandemic also reduced remittances from abroad. In response, states in the EAC set up measures like expansion of the existing social protection schemes to accommodate newly vulnerable groups in addition to other range of measures.

The interventions included conditional and unconditional cash transfers and in-kind social assistance.  South Sudan, for instance, launched a three-year $40 million safety nets project funded by the World Bank in April 2020. The project, initially designed to cover 6,500 households in the capital, was increased to benefit 10,000 households.

Before Covid-19, Kenya had an existing cash transfer programme dubbed Inua Jamii, which was giving Ksh2,000 ($19) to one million people monthly. At the onset of the pandemic in April 2020, the Kenyan government expanded the programme with an additional $100 million to benefit older persons, orphans and other vulnerable members of society during the Covid-19 pandemic, adding three million new beneficiaries.

The study further noted that food provision was crucial as it addressed the disruption of supply chains resulting from the lockdowns. Food distribution targeted urban households, which were disproportionately affected by the lockdowns and curfew measures. For example, Uganda distributed food to 1.5 million vulnerable persons in urban areas. Rwanda combined food and other essential basic necessities for young girls with items like sanitary pads, targeting casual labourers whose livelihoods depended on daily wage and self-employment. In South Sudan, the World Food Programme provided one-month in-kind food assistance to 40,000 persons in May 2020.

Other forms of in-kind support included utility support like deferral of deadlines for payment of utilities such as water, electricity and internet during the containment period. Waivers on specific payments were also used as a form of in-kind transfer. In Kenya, the government waived levies for sending cash through mobile money electronic transfers below Ksh1,000 ($10) for a period of one year. Uganda halted for 30 days, bank-to-mobile money wallet charges and cash-out fees for smaller transactions.

Regarding prevention measures, in Uganda, the government offered masks to everyone aged six years and above. In addition to these, other in-kind social protection items offered during the pandemic included soap and mosquito nets.  

Similarly, in South Sudan, Unicef and partners distributed 240,000 masks to vulnerable people. In some EAC states like Kenya and Rwanda, cash and in-kind interventions were accompanied with information on the prevention of Covid-19, infant feeding, child marriages, and violence in schools and communities.

The study noted that lockdowns disrupted school meals. This could contribute to higher malnutrition levels in the future. Moreover, several countries, among them Rwanda and Kenya, provided pre-Covid-19 interventions such as deworming and vaccinations in schools. As such, the continued closure of schools would increase the likelihood of recurrence of these health conditions or outbreaks of preventable diseases.

To address this danger, some countries offered supplementary nutritional assistance like food vouchers. In Kenya, the government set up a Covid-19 multi-stakeholder task force to coordinate identification and delivery of social protection interventions like cash transfer, for the most vulnerable households in the urban informal settlements. Despite these efforts, recent reports by Unicef and World Health Organisatin (WHO) indicate that Covid-19 is going to exacerbate malnutrition and food insecurity among low-income households with children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and adolescents.

The emerging harsh environmental conditions in East Africa due to climate change and Covid-19 containment measures like lockdowns and work from home, disproportionately affect the informal sector, which supports a large segment of the population at the base of the pyramid, compounding further challenges, especially in Kenya and South Sudan.

According to the study, WASH interventions had been a significant feature of SP interventions, even prior to the standard operating procedures (SOP) demands of Covid-19 (e.g., frequent hand washing). Regarding hygiene, both information and actual supplies were provided. For example, hygiene kits were distributed in South Sudan. In addition, hand-washing interventions, including in some instances the actual provision of soap, were implemented widely in some East Africa countries.

In preparation for the re-opening of schools in South Sudan, school management committees undertook intensive back-to-school campaigns. These committees also provided menstrual hygiene support by providing re-usable sanitary pads to adolescent girls.

The study established that at least 23.7 percent of children in East and Southern Africa reported experiencing violence at home during the pandemic. Schools acted as safe spaces for children and their closure meant limited access to trusted adult figures who could detect early signs of abuse and get help for the affected children. The study recognises efforts by the states and child agencies in East Africa that strengthened the existing child help distress call mechanisms like the additional roll-out of 24/7 helpline for child protection and gender-based violence referral system.

The loss of livelihoods and incomes during the pandemic forced children into child labour. To address this problem in Uganda, the government and UN agencies developed plans to prevent and end child labour.

The study found that even with the expansion of the population requiring social protection interventions, spending on social protection was much lower than what countries spent on fiscal stimulus packages. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the case study countries allocated additional spending on the health sector and non-health sector, and accelerated spending in the form of equity injections, loans, asset purchase, or debt assumptions.

Kenya, increased its spending on stimulus packages to at least 1.5 percent of gross domestic product. The country’s funds were from austerity measures implemented at both national and county government levels. Uganda offered substantial support in the form of equity injections, loans, asset purchases, or debt assumptions.

Photo credit: Photo | Colin Crowley/Save the Children

Tax relief measures were also used extensively to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Kenya, for example, offered 100 percent tax relief for low-income earners. Countries organised additional resources in response to the economic and health crisis.

However, the study indicated that earlier crises showed that stimulus packages are often followed by austerity measures or budget cuts. If countries in the region implement austerity measures, they will claw back gains made in relation to educational, nutritional, health, and protection needs of children.

The study indicated that countries in the region faced fiscal challenges regarding their ability to initiate or expand existing social protection interventions. As such, a significant proportion of interventions was financed by donors, with countries providing off-budget support for their expanded social protection programmes. The considerable reliance on development partners does not guarantee the sustainability of social protection programmes.

The study noted that the emergency interventions targeted households and not individuals directly. Previous research shows that schemes targeting households are more likely to benefit men, especially in the rural settings because of gender power imbalance at the household level. On the other hand, the emergency relief targeting urban areas was appropriate because these locations bore the brunt of the lockdown and curfew measures. The absence of conditionalities in the emergency interventions was an improvement from previous social protection schemes. However, this was limited in geographical coverage due to resources.  

The study indicated that alternative methods of teaching have created inequalities in access to education. Most school-going children in the region have no access to the internet at home to enable distance learning. Estimates by Unicef show that only 12 percent of school-age children aged between three and 17 have access to the internet. Worse still, children in urban areas are three times more likely to have internet than rural children.

Beyond disparities due to location, the study noted substantial gaps in access to the internet owing to social class. At least 40 percent of children from the top quintile in the region have internet access, compared with only two percent for the bottom quintile.

The study recommends adequate financing for social protection and emphasises the need for expansion or establishment of social registries and databases for future responses.

In addition, the study notes that several countries could not start delivering interventions due to inadequate capacity and logistical challenges. There were commendable efforts to use technology to reach population groups that were left out by previous social protection schemes. As such, the study recommends that mobile money and digital enrolment platforms be used beyond the Covid-19-emergency response period.

According to the study, there is a need to significantly expand the population covered by social protection interventions because of the exceptionally low coverage rates. Further, there should be increased targeting of informal sector workers and the working poor in urban areas.

The study calls for continuous support for the most vulnerable children and adolescents to access education. This support should include children who fell pregnant during Covid-19 school closures. 

The full study report is titled “Social Protection Interventions Targeting Children in East and Southern Africa: Cases of Selected Countries”. It can be accessed at www.africapsp.org

*Sponsored by the Africa Platform for Social Protection in collaboration with Save the Children.

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