Overcoming the Food Security and Nutrition Roadblocks in Social Protection Responses to COVID-19


In celebration of World Food Day 2020, there is a need to jointly reflect on the obstacles that national social protection systems face to effectively respond to increased levels of vulnerability to hunger and malnutrition in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

National social protection systems have been key to channeling essential support — worth a record 0.8% of the global gross domestic product in just half a year — to those most adversely affected by the pandemic.

Working together with over 50 governments in using and strengthening these systems as effective means to achieve Zero Hunger, WFP has brought together in this video blog 12 of the world’s most prominent voices in social protection, food security, and nutrition.

These thought leaders, coming from different disciplines, regions, and sectors, tell us what, why and how we can overcome the roadblocks that hinder social protection from being able to sustainably support individuals and societies at large.

The discussion below was initiated in the context of the global socialprotection.org e-conference: Turning the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity. WFP together with key partners including the Centre for Social Protection at IDS, EPRI, SUN, NEPAD, FAO, GAIN, IFPRI and FHI360 have pushed to make hunger and malnutrition front and centre of social protection responses to COVID-19.

Thought Leaders’ Voices for Ending Hunger and Malnutrition

Filled with optimism, His Majesty King Letsie the III of the Kingdom of Lesotho reminds us that the COVID-19 crisis alone is likely to reverse the hard-earned gains that have been made towards the sustainable development goals. He implores us to reflect on a vision for innovative, home-grown, and sustainable solutions to hunger.

Pakistan’s Dr. Sania Nishtar, Minister and Special Assistant on Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety, experienced first-hand how social protection is the most important tool for food security during a crisis. According to her, social protection is an under-appreciated policy opportunity to combat food insecurity and malnutrition requiring synergies across a variety of policies and programmes.

‘What does nine minus one equal?’ is the question that Dr. Michael Samson, Director of EPRI, brings to the table. He argues that food security is so deeply integrated into other social sectors and services, that addressing malnutrition through cohesive and coordinated approaches is essential for the success of broader human and economic development goals. He echoes the findings of a joint study between WFP and EPRI, on Why does Food Security and Nutrition Matter in Social Protection Responses to Systemic Shocks in the Southern African Region?

Ms. Gerda Verburg, United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General and Coordinator of the SUN Movement, reflects on some of the key lessons that COVID-19 has taught us: the vital importance of integrated approaches that bring sectors together, and our power to mobilise as citizens to demand accountability for reducing hunger and malnutrition.

Dan Gilligan, Deputy Director of IFPRI’s Poverty, Health and Nutrition Division makes an argument for how expanding coverage of cash-based social assistance programmes is essential for enabling health systems to better respond to the COVID-19 virus.

From Prof. Stephen Devereux, of the Institute of Development Studies, we hear that adequacy of social protection transfers are just as important as coverage. He posits a paradox, noting that households or individuals may remain food insecure or malnourished even if they are receiving social assistance and enjoy income security.

Gaps in affordability of healthy and nutritious food are at the forefront of Dr. Saskia De Pee’s mind, Chief of Systems Analysis for Nutrition at WFP. She highlights the need for a better understanding of the magnitude and causes of the affordability gap and how action across different systems can contribute to reducing it. WFP is supporting this understanding with Fill the Nutrient Gap assessments that have so far been carried out in 35 countries.

Reflecting on the devasting impacts of COVID-19 in lost incomes, drops in food expenditures and consumption rates, Dr. Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI, calls for investments in nimble data and knowledge systems. These, to direct social protection efforts to address bottlenecks in service provision and contribute to maternal and child nutrition in particular.

Without financing, there are limits to the effectiveness of social protection in developing countries. Prof. Olivier de Schutter, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, makes the case for a Global Fund for Social Protection to enable low-income countries to provide adequate social protection floors that extend a basic level of support for everyone in society.

Prof. John Hoddinott of Cornell University remarks that, “investments need to be made in social protection systems, not just programmes”. He reminds us that shock-responsive and adaptive social protection systems are critical to meeting people’s essential nutritional needs in times of crisis.

Prof. Richard Mkandawire, Chairperson of the National Planning Commission of Malawi, makes a compelling case for low- and middle-income countries’ innovation and investments in social protection. He shares his ideas on how social protection can help drive national development and avoid the reliance on external support for aid and relief in times of crisis.


Indeed, Prof. Lucie Cluver, at the University of Oxford, emphasises the need for commitment from political leaders towards social protection with the same degree of dedication that has been given to finding a vaccine for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Dr. Aulo Gelli, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI, explains the gaps in data that indicate who has been affected most by the pandemic. He looks at how existing social protection systems have navigated ‘data gaps’ to reach those in need.

Lawrence Haddad, Director of GAIN and 2018 World Food Prize laureate, points to three key roadblocks and their solutions in the design, financing, and implementation of social protection systems. He shares a useful table to summarise his arguments and more importantly, suggest the way forward.