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Special journal issue gives evidence on what works for social protection in fragile contexts

Seven new papers use variety of methods to overcome challenges of conducting research in humanitarian settings

Children at a UNICEF-supported tented school for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

(Florence, 6 December 2019) As conflict-related crises and the movement of people across the globe continue, there is a growing need to support vulnerable populations who have been uprooted or are on the move. Social protection can help to address this need, through supporting basic needs, addressing poverty, and providing opportunities to improve health and education of children. A newly published special issue of the Journal of Development Studies aims to inform and support the design of social protection programmes in these humanitarian contexts.


“Ongoing and new crises left an estimated 164.2 million people in need of international humanitarian assistance in 2016,” said UNICEF Innocenti’s Manager of Humanitarian Policy Research, Jacobus de Hoop. “The combination of commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals [Goal 1.3] and the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit [increase social protection programmes and strengthen national and local systems and coping mechanisms in order to build resilience in fragile contexts] means now is the time to focus efforts on building resilient and effective social protection systems in fragile contexts.”

“Now is the time to focus efforts on building resilient

and effective social protection systems in fragile contexts.”

Despite the increased use of social protection in fragile settings, there is still a need for thorough research regarding what works and why. Significant challenges arise in conducting research in fragile contexts. The studies in this special edition are helping to close the evidence gaps by exploring:

  1. Intended and unintended education and child labor impacts of food assistance in Mali
  2. The nutrition impacts of food and asset transfers in Niger; 
  3. Productive impacts of in-kind and cash transfers in Yemen;
  4. Ways to effectively identify social protection recipients in Niger;
  5. The costs of reforming Iraq’s public distribution system;
  6. The impact of cash transfers on the school participation of displaced Syrian children in Lebanon;
  7. If social protection affects social cohesion among Colombian refugees and poor segments of the Ecuadorian host community.
A map showing the seven studies included in the Special Issue Journal of Development Studies on social protection in fragile settings.


“We hope that these studies will help support policy design and encourage further research on social protection in challenging humanitarian settings,” de Hoop said. Despite these emerging insights, the authors of the special issue call for more research on social protection in humanitarian settings, the efficiency of which can, ultimately, save lives.

The publication, focusing on social protection in contexts of fragility and forced displacement, follows a call for papers by UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti and a workshop on the topic in June 2018. Revised versions of seven working papers released at the workshop are included in the special issue, which was led and edited by UNICEF Innocenti, in collaboration with colleagues at the International Security and Development Centre and the World Bank.


Discover UNICEF Innocenti’s work on Social Protection in Humanitarian Settings plus explore our Research Watch on Social Protection in Emergency Situations,

Related Articles

Workshop on evidence on social protection in contexts of fragility and forced displacement
Article Article

Workshop on evidence on social protection in contexts of fragility and forced displacement

(6 June 2018) An international workshop at UNICEF Innocenti will bring together and foster exchange between researchers and policy makers working on social protection in settings of humanitarian emergency. The workshop, jointly organized with UNICEF's Social Inclusion section in New York, will take place on 7 and 8 June. The workshop is seen as a follow-up to the international conference on social protection in contexts of fragility and forced displacement held in Brussels in late 2017. The workshop will focus on the latest rigorous quantitative evidence on the effects of social protection programmes in humanitarian settings, concentrating on evidence gaps and the policy implications. The workshop coincides with the publication of seven new draft working papers, which will be discussed on the day. The papers broadly fall into three themes: Comparisons between effectiveness of different delivery modalities; Evaluations and implications of targeting choices (including universal reforms); and Impacts of programs targeted at refugees and host communities.All seven papers are now available for download and can be found on the right-hand column of this page under "Related Content - Publications".Malian refugees use a water point in the Mangaize refugee camp, Niger. Recurrent conflict between armed groups in Northern Mali cause a constant influx of refugees into the Tillabery and Tahoua regions of Niger.As part of the commitments under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1, the global community at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) pledged to expand the coverage of social protection measures for all, and to achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable by 2030. This expansion must include scale up of social protection in humanitarian contexts, including fragility and forced displacement to ensure no one is left behind. Social protection is increasingly considered as an important policy response in contexts of fragility and displacement. In non-fragile contexts, Innocenti research has provided extensive evidence and knowledge on related policy implications generated by  Social Cash Transfer Programmes in several low and middle income countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia  among others. Between 2013 and 2015 positive impacts on poverty, income multipliers, food security, productivity, education and health demonstrate that social protection helps reduce poverty, inequality, enhances livelihoods, and has long-term positive impacts on human capital development.This year the UNICEF Innocenti team will continue to document positive evidence and knowledge gaps associated with conducting research on these systems, such as the cash transfer program in Lebanon, known as Min Ila, an initiative of the Government of Lebanon, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme to encourage school participation of displaced Syrian children. As Jacob De Hoop, Humanitarian Policy Specialist at Innocenti leading the research, highlights in his blog this research represents one of the first evaluations of a cash transfer program that aims to improve education outcomes for children in a refugee context and helps fill an important gap in our knowledge about what programs work to help refugees. It also demonstrates the challenges of achieving an equitable balance between assistance for refugees and host populations, an important question, particularly in locations where social protection guarantees for nationals and social services infrastructure remain limited.In September UNICEF Innocenti interviewed six experts attending the Brussels Conference to talk about existing challenges, experience and potential of social protection programmes in contexts of fragility; forced displacement and prolonged crisis, as well as to identify future directions for research. Their words confirm the lack of knowledge in those areas and the critical role of research in bridging the gaps. The interviews conducted now form the basis of a new edition of UNICEF Innocenti's Research Watch programme titled: Social Protection in Emergency Situations Research Watch. On the Research Watch page you can find all the expert video interviews as well as extended podcasts and written commentary.You can download the seven working papers now! Search on the right-hand column of this article under "Related Content - Publications".

Research Projects

Social protection in humanitarian settings
Research Project Research Project

Social protection in humanitarian settings

Humanitarian challenges of protracted fragility and conflict-related crises, and the more recent unprecedented migration and refugee movement around the globe underscore the need to break down the barriers between humanitarian and development work. Acute and extended crises such as in Syria have contributed to migration flows, which also highlight the need for long-term solutions in countries of destination. Social protection is increasingly considered as a policy response in contexts of fragility and displacement. In non-fragile contexts, extensive evidence demonstrates that social protection helps reduce poverty and inequality. While establishing effective social protection in the context of protracted instability and displaced populations is more complex, it is also increasingly viewed as an essential mechanism to bridge the humanitarian-developmental divide. However, despite the increasing use of social protection in these settings, comparatively little is known from rigorous research regarding what works, and why. In response to the Syrian crises, which led a large number of Syrian refugees to Lebanon, UNICEF, in partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme and in coordination with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Lebanona, initiated a child-focused cash transfer program for displaced Syrian children in Lebanon in the 2016-2017 school year. The program, known as the “No Lost Generation” or “Min Ila” (“from/to” in Arabic), was designed to reduce financial and other obstacles to children’s school attendance, including reliance on child labor, to minimize the impact of negative coping strategies on children. A recently produced final technical report, “Min Ila” Cash Transfer Programme for Displaced Syrian Children in Lebanon, now provides an evaluation of the Min Ila project’s effect on improving children’s health and nutrition; on lowering child engagement in household work; on improving children’s subjective well-being; and on increasing child school attendance. The report documents important positive gains on key indicators among Syrian children living in Lebanon, and was jointly prepared by UNICEF Innocenti and the American Institutes for Research. 


Evidence on Social Protection in Contexts of Fragility and Forced Displacement
Publication Publication

Evidence on Social Protection in Contexts of Fragility and Forced Displacement

Rigorous research in humanitarian settings is possible when researchers and programmers work together, particularly in the early stages when responses to humanitarian challenges are designed. Six new rigorous research studies from five countries: Ecuador, Mali, Niger, Lebanon and Yemen illustrate this point.


Unicef Research Blogs

(2018-06-05) Imagine you work for UNICEF in Lebanon. Your team has the challenging task of ensuring that half a million displaced Syrian children who fled the war in their home countr ...
(2019-12-09) Rigorous research in humanitarian emergencies is not only feasible but also necessary to determine what constitutes effective assistance in these settings. This column in ...


Tilmann Brück, Founder of the International Security and Research Center