Glossary of key terms for SPaN

Global experiences of working with social protection systems and approaches to respond to a crisis have recently been organised into a working typology summarized in the Reference Document. This typology has been a useful way of demonstrating what working with social protection systems and approaches in humanitarian contexts might look like, and categorising common features, enablers, constraining factors and risks.


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Design Tweaks: The design of social protection programmes and systems can be adjusted in a way that takes into consideration the crises that a country typically faces. These are small adjustments to a routine social protection programme. They can introduce flexibility to maintain the regular service in a shock. For example, the Philippines allows compliance with conditionality for its cash transfer programme, Pantawid, to be waived in a calamity. Alternatively, they can improve coverage, timeliness or predictability without requiring any ‘flex’ at the moment of the shock. For example, Mozambique’s cash transfer programme regularly experiences disbursement delays at the start of each new financial year in January; unfortunately, that coincides with the period of greatest risk of climate shocks such as cyclones. A design tweak, such as a double payment in December in place of one in January, might ensure that households were covered at the time of increased vulnerability. The merits of different design tweaks would need to be examined on a case-by-case basis. The risks – if the change is implemented sensitively – are low, provided the adjustment does not divert the programme from its core objective or close off opportunities to achieve greater impact.

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Piggybacking: A social protection programme’s administrative systems can be used by humanitarian (or other) actors to deliver assistance, but the response programme itself is managed separately from the social protection programme. For example, this could be when a humanitarian response uses a specific programme’s beneficiary list, a country’s national registries or programme databases of households underpinning social protection programmes, a social assistance programme’s particular payment mechanism, or makes use of social protection staff. Similarly, a humanitarian response could use the payment system of a contributory pension scheme (as happened in Lesotho). The essence of this approach is to provide a faster, more effective response through tried-and-tested methods that communities and end-beneficiaries are familiar with. This saves the set-up time and costs associated with establishing a parallel system through emergency response.

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Vertical expansion: A social protection programme can temporarily increase the benefit value or duration of a benefit provided through an existing programme, either for all or for some of the existing beneficiaries. This can be done via an adjustment of transfer amounts, or through the introduction of extraordinary payments or transfers, to a regular social assistance programme implemented in non-crisis times. The rationale may be to recognise the increased household costs as a result of the crises, or to temporarily harmonise the size of payments from the social assistance programme with a humanitarian response. Alternatively, if the payments are to be extended in duration, the rationale may be that there has been an extended period of need as a result of market disruption or agricultural production. With this approach, any extra support is provided as an integral part of the existing intervention – that is, it uses the same implementers and delivery channels.


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Horizontal Expansion: Social assistance programmes can temporarily include new, crisis-affected beneficiaries in an existing social protection programme. This option may involve extending the programme to more people in the same geographical area or an extension of the programme’s geographical coverage to areas affected by the crises but not in the footprint of the ‘regular’ programme. The expansion of the regular programme into new territories can be achieved through either a pre-screening of potential beneficiaries before a crisis event and/ or through an extraordinary enrolment campaign to rapidly enrol those who fit programme criteria and who have been affected, or a modification/relaxation of eligibility criteria to allow more people to benefit. While the most effective and rapid scale-ups have agreed a number of parameters ex ante, these are not prerequisites. Ideally, the parameters to be agreed ex ante are where the scale-up should take place, which households are to receive support through the programme, and what the (objective) triggers to authorise a scale-up will be.


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Alignment: An emergency response can be deliberately designed to align with another (actual or future) social protection programme or system. Where the country systems are not mature or do not penetrate across the entire country, there have been examples where humanitarian projects have been designed explicitly with the expectation that the projects could evolve and mature over time into fully fledged, national social protection systems (e.g. the Cadre Commun sur les Filets Sociaux in Mali, and the Urban Food Security programme in Kenya). This could be achieved through greater alignment of humanitarian interventions into something more predictable and ‘systemic’, or alignment of a response programme with an existing or future social protection programme, to facilitate potential integration and national ownership in the future.


Below are selected definitions of key terms for SPaN as used and properly referenced in the Reference Document.


Adaptive social protection: A series of measures which aim to build resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable people to climate change by combining elements of social protection, disaster risk reduction and climate change. Since this conceptualization, it has come to be understood as entailing the need to better adapt social protection to all types of shocks.

Cash-for-work:  Payments provided on the condition of undertaking designated work. This is generally paid according to time worked (e.g. number of days, daily rate), but may also be quantified in terms of outputs (e.g. number of items produced, cubic metres dug). Cash-for-work interventions are usually in public or community work programmes, but can also include home-based and other forms of work.

Cash Plus: Complementary programming where cash transfers are combined with other modalities or activities. Complementary interventions may be implemented by the same agency/agencies providing cash transfers, or potentially by other agencies working in collaboration. Examples might include provision of training and/or livelihood inputs, or behavioural change communication programmes.

Cash transfers: Direct, regular and predictable transfers that raise and smooth incomes to reduce poverty and vulnerability. How to spend unconditional cash transfers is for the beneficiary to decide. Conditional cash transfers are given with the requirement that the beneficiary meets certain conditions – often related to human capital development, such as visiting a health clinic or ensuring children go to school.

Commodity vouchers:  They are exchanged for a fixed quantity and quality of specified goods or services at participating vendors. Commodity vouchers share some similarities with in-kind aid in that they restrict and specify the assistance received, but it is accessed at local markets through traders.

Conditionality: Prerequisite or qualifying conditions that a beneficiary must fulfil to receive a cash transfer or voucher – that is, activities or obligations that must be fulfilled before receiving assistance. It is distinct from restriction, which pertains only to how transfers are used. Conditionality can in principle be used with any kind of cash, voucher or other type of assistance, depending on its objectives and design.

Conditional transfers: Require beneficiaries to undertake a specific action/activity (e.g. attend school, build a shelter, attend nutrition screenings, undertake work, etc.) to receive assistance – that is, a condition must be fulfilled before the transfer is received. Cash-for-work/assets/training are all forms of conditional transfers.

Delivery mechanism: Means of delivering a cash or voucher transfer (e.g. smart card, mobile money transfers, cash in envelopes, etc.).

Disaster risk reduction: Means, according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, ‘actions taken to reduce the risk of disasters and the adverse impacts of natural hazards, through systematic efforts to analyse and manage the causes of disasters, including through avoidance of hazards, reduced social and economic vulnerability to hazards, and improved preparedness for adverse events’.

Effectiveness: How well outputs are converted to outcomes and impacts (e.g. reduction in poverty gap and inequality, improved nutrition, reduction in school dropout, increased use of health services, asset accumulation by the poor, increased smallholder productivity, social cohesion).

Efficiency: Ability of a programme to achieve its intended objectives at the least cost possible in terms of use of inputs (i.e. capital, labour and other inputs).

Modality: Form of assistance (e.g. cash transfer, vouchers, in-kind, service delivery, or a combination). This can include both direct transfers at household level, and assistance provided at a more general or community level, such as health services or WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene) infrastructure.

Multi-purpose cash grants (MPG) or Multi-purpose cash assistance (MCA): A transfer (either regular or one-off) corresponding to the amount of money a household needs to cover, fully or partially, a set of basic and/or recovery needs. They are by definition unrestricted cash transfers. The MPG/MCA can contribute to meeting a Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB) or other calculation of the amount required to cover basic needs, but can also include other one-off or recovery needs.

Public works programmes: Provide jobs on infrastructure projects for cash or food. They are sometimes classified as labour market interventions, depending on whether their function is primarily poverty alleviation, job creation, or social protection.

Shock-responsive social protection: Term used to bring focus on shocks that affect a large proportion of the population simultaneously (covariate shocks).1 It encompasses the adaptation of routine social protection programmes and systems to cope with changes in context and demand following large-scale shocks. This can be ex ante by building shock-responsive systems, plans and partnerships in advance of a shock to better prepare for emergency response; or ex post, to support households once the shock has occurred. In this way, social protection can complement and support other emergency response interventions.

Social assistance: Direct, regular and predictable transfer of cash or in-kind resources transfers poor and vulnerable individuals or households. It is usually provided by the state and financed by national taxes. Support from donors is also important in lower-income contexts.

Social care services: Non-cash interventions such as family support services to prevent family breakdown, child protection services to respond to abuse and neglect, alternative care for children, and social work support to people with disabilities. The importance of psychosocial support in such circumstances is recognised in some quarters.

Social insurance schemes: Contributory programmes where participants make regular payments to a scheme that will cover costs related to life-course events (e.g. maternity, unemployment or illness). Sometimes costs are matched or subsidised by the scheme provider. Social insurance includes: contributory pensions; health, unemployment, or disaster insurance; and funeral assistance. It can be provided formally through a bank or employer, or informally through a community-based pooled fund. Social insurance is strongly linked to the formal labour market – meaning coverage is often limited to formal workers.

Social protection system: A policy and legislative framework for social protection, including the budget framework, together with the set of specific social protection programmes and their corresponding implementation mechanisms. ‘Systematisation’ represents the idea that social protection instruments can be integrated into a more comprehensive system of policies and programmes that not only tackle poverty and vulnerability over the life cycle, but also strengthen pro-poor and inclusive economic growth and social development.

Safety nets or social safety nets: Target the poor or vulnerable and consist of non-contributory transfers, such as in-kind food, cash or vouchers; they can be provided conditionally or unconditionally. They are a sub-set of broader social protection systems. The term was introduced to refer to a temporary measure to catch those who were transiently made vulnerable through structural adjustment and liberalisation (e.g. transfers to households or subsidy programmes).2 The term ‘(social) safety net’ is now widely used, sometimes with different meanings. There is no commonly agreed definition of this terminology, and actors may use it to refer to protective social transfer projects ensuring a minimum level of income (as per the original definition), or (humanitarian) cash transfer projects, or social transfer schemes developed within a broader social protection system (guaranteeing a long-term institutionalised social protection).

Social transfers: Non-contributory, publicly funded, direct, regular and predictable resource transfers (in cash or in kind) to poor and vulnerable individuals or households, aimed at reducing their deficits in consumption, protecting them from shocks (including economic and climatic shocks), and, in some cases, strengthening their productive capacity.

Unconditional transfers: Provided to beneficiaries without the recipient having to do anything in return to receive the assistance.

Value for Money: Optimal use of resources to achieve the best outcomes for people affected by crisis and disaster.

Value vouchers: Have a denominated cash value and can be exchanged with participating vendors for goods or services of an equivalent monetary cost. Value vouchers tend to provide relatively greater flexibility and choice than commodity vouchers, but are still necessarily restricted as they can only be exchanged with designated vendors.

Vouchers: Paper, token or e-vouchers that can be exchanged for a set quantity or value of goods, denominated either as a cash value (e.g. USD 15) or predetermined commodities or services (e.g. 5 kilos of maize; milling of 5 kilos of maize), or a combination of value and commodities. They are redeemable with preselected vendors or in ‘fairs’ created by the agency. Vouchers are used to provide access to a range of goods or services, at recognised retail outlets or service centres. Vouchers are by default a restricted form of transfer, although there are wide variations in the degree of restriction/flexibility different voucher-based programmes may provide. The terms vouchers, stamps, or coupons are often used interchangeably.

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last update
22 May 2020

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