Fulfilling the commitments of the United Nations (UN) Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development means leaving no one behind — including in crisis contexts shaped by conflict and fragility. Despite the achievement of important development gains over the past decade, widespread crises around the world interact with development trajectories to undermine progress and sustainability (Opitz-Stapleton, Nadin, Kellett, Calderone, Quevedo, Peters & Mayhew, 2019; SPIAC-B, 2019; DFID, 2019). The gross impacts of these crises are determined both by the severity of the situation and associated threats, and the decisions made by domestic and international actors in response to this (Opitz-Stapleton et al., 2019).


Social protection in crisis contexts

While it is difficult to control the severity of crises, effective responses can minimise the impacts. The best responses address the immediate crisis while linking to recovery and development initiatives —including social protection (DFID, 2019). This integrated approach contributes to bridging the humanitarian-development nexus; facilitating an inclusive path to development.   

The value of implementing social protection tools in crisis contexts shaped by conflict and fragility is recognised by international actors through various commitments, such as those of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit Grand Bargain (the Grand Bargain), which seeks to increase cash-based programming (CBP) and support for national responders (WFP, 2019; Food Security Cluster, 2018). Aligned with the Grand Bargain commitments, programmes such as the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) in Turkey, have demonstrated the capacity of a social protection approach to foster sustainable, inclusive development despite crisis.


Working with social protection in crisis contexts

Fragile and conflict affected situations pose some of the most complex development challenges. Conflict and fragility are multidimensional issues which — depending on the context — can include deficiencies across any number of dimensions, and can additionally affect states, sub-national, and transnational areas (Rowe, 2019). The deterioration of conditions in these situations can lead to critical threats to the health, safety, security, and wellbeing of large groups or communities, thereby necessitating humanitarian responses (Humanitarian Coalition, Accessed 2019).

While crisis may expose humanitarian needs, working with social protection tools in these contexts can reduce the severity of those needs to facilitate transitions to sustainable development. According to Rowe, “extensive evidence demonstrates that social protection can help reduce poverty, inequality and deprivation with positive impacts on human capital development and economic growth, including in fragile and conflict-affected settings” (2019). Moreover, social protection can also help poor households to better cope with and withstand crises; reducing the risk that crises will undermine development progress (Rowe, 2019).

In terms of delivery, design, and targeting, humanitarian cash assistance shares many commonalities with social protection cash-transfers (Rowe, 2019). As such, several high-level, multilateral agreements have established commitments to leverage synergies between humanitarian and development work through CBP (DFID, 2019).

For instance, signatories of the Grand Bargain have committed to increasing the use of CBP, and “where possible and appropriate, [using, linking or aligning this] with local and national mechanisms such as social protection systems” (The Grand Bargain in DFID, 2019; Rowe, 2019). This approach provides a framework to transition between humanitarian responses and long-term sustainable development efforts by progressively shifting chronic humanitarian caseloads into social protection systems (SPIAC-B, 2019).


Turkey’s Emergency Social Safety Net

While integrated social protection and humanitarian assistance is still a relatively new approach, it has gained traction in response to mass displacement. The largest of these projects implemented to date is the ESSN — a targeted, unconditional humanitarian cash transfer programme in Turkey, which serves approximately 1.5 million beneficiaries (Cuevas, Facundo, Kaan Inan, Aysha Twose, & Çiğdem Çelik, 2019).

As host to the largest refugee population globally, the ESSN was introduced in Turkey in November 2016 with the objective of meeting the basic needs of the most vulnerable refugees through regular cash transfers (Cuevas et al., 2019). With funding commitment from the humanitarian arm of the European Union’s Facility for Refugees Turkey through to 2019, the ESSN is implemented nationwide by the Turkish Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services and other government agencies, in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Turkish Red Crescent (WFP, 2019; Cuevas et al., 2019; Food Security Cluster, 2018).   

The ESSN has four main objectives:

  1. To help vulnerable refugees meet their basic needs;
  2. To reduce or stabilise households’ use of negative coping strategies (i.e. strategies such as reducing investments in health and education);
  3. To reduce or stabilise household debt and help families regain financial control and independence; and
  4. To enhance national crisis response capacity. (WFP, 2019)

To meet these objectives, the ESSN uses targeting criteria based on household demographic characteristics to identify the most vulnerable refugee populations, i.e. those unable to afford basic needs (Cuevas et al., 2019). This includes an assessment of six criteria considered to offer the best proxy measure of poverty, which includes families with a high dependency ratio, families with many children, single females, elderly-headed households, singe-parent households, and households in which a member is significantly disabled (Cuevas et al., 2019).

Based on these criteria, the ESSN provides monthly unconditional cash transfers to eligible households through special debit cards, thereby providing the opportunity to those who receive assistance to make their own decisions regarding the allocation of the funds that they receive (WFP, 2019; Cuevas et al., 2019).


Programme impact

After two years of implementation, the ESSN programme appears to have been largely effective. For instance, based on various thresholds, the poverty incidence among ESSN eligible refugees is both consistently and significantly higher than among ineligible refugees, which implies that the programme’s targeting framework has been effective thus far at distinguishing the most vulnerable groups (Cuevas et al., 2019).

Additionally, the targeted approach of the ESSN has allowed the programme to ensure transfer adequacy despite the resource constrains of operating within a crisis context. This means that the funds received by beneficiaries are large enough to make a difference in their lives, such that their ability to meet their basic needs remains uncompromised (Cuevas et al., 2019). While final evaluations are yet to be released, findings such as these speak volumes regarding the value of an integrated social protection and humanitarian assistance using CBP.


Discussion: Bridging the divide

CBP, such as the ESSN, is a progressive approach with the potential to bridge the humanitarian-development divide through an integrated response to poverty and crisis. Working with social protection tools has the potential to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, and suitability of humanitarian responses by:

  • Reducing response times,
    • Social protection initiatives can enable the rapid delivery of humanitarian assistance by working with established beneficiary criteria or payment delivery mechanisms.
  • Avoiding duplication,
    • Working within existing systems and structures can streamline support by reducing overlapping crisis responses by different agencies. 
  • Strengthening or building the foundation for future, sustainable and nationally appropriate systems,
    • Building the capacities of social protection tools through both humanitarian and development interventions can contribute to addressing long-term drivers of poverty and vulnerability.
  • Offering choice and dignity to the most marginalised and vulnerable,
    • Providing regular, predictable support through systematised channels can provide aid recipients with a sense of human dignity and control by allowing them both to meet their basic needs and to exert choice in how they do so to most improve their lives.
  • Supporting local economies,
    • By receiving regular, predictable cash assistance, beneficiaries can choose how to allocate their funds within local markets, thereby extending economic benefits within their host communities.
  • Offering a progressive exit strategy, and
    • Social protection tools can contribute to navigating a smooth transition between the provision of assistance in crisis and non-crisis periods, including leveraging crisis responses to bolster the role of national governments in enabling long-term recovery.
  • Enhancing value for money (Rowe, 2019; DFID, 2019; Food Security Cluster, 2018)
    • By harnessing the efficiencies of the above benefits, social protection initiatives can enable more cost-effective approaches to crisis response.  



Monitoring and evaluation of the ESSN thus far has demonstrated that it achieves many of the benefits listed above. Delivered through a multi-stakeholder partnership, the ESSN is a nationally integrated system designed to provide refugees with reliable support over the long-term (WFP, 2019).

As crisis in the region around Turkey becomes protracted, ESSN stakeholders are shifting their focus from a humanitarian-type to a development-type response (Cuevas et al., 2019). Undertaking this shift is a crucial step in promoting a sustainable exit from poverty and vulnerability for the ESSN’s current beneficiaries, so that they can transition towards better income-earning opportunities and thereby regain some of their independence (Cuevas et al., 2019).   

Lessons learned from the approach of the ESSN and similar programmes should inform the design of assistance elsewhere (WFP, 2019). While international commitments such as the Grand Bargain are evidence that the need to increase humanitarian-development engagement is recognised, CBP only accounts for a small portion of global humanitarian aid (Cuevas et al., 2019). As crises becomes more commonplace, it is imperative to consider innovative ways of bridging the humanitarian-development divide — particularly if we aspire to achieve the objectives set forth by Agenda 2030, and to leave no one behind in so doing.    



Cuevas, P. Facundo, O. Kaan Inan, Twose, A. and Çelik, C. (2019). Vulnerability and Protection of Refugees in Turkey: Findings from the Rollout of the Largest Humanitarian Cash Assistance Program in the World, World Bank and World Food Programme. Accessible: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/31813/Vulnerability-and-Protection-of-Refugees-in-Turkey-Findings-from-the-Rollout-of-the-Largest-Humanitarian-Cash-Assistance-Program-in-the-World.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y 

Department for International Development, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, UN Children's Fund. (2019, June). Grand Bargain Workshop: Linking Humanitarian Cash and Social Protection [10th-11th April 2019, Geneva]. Holmes, R. (Ed.), Department for International Development: United Kingdom. Accessible: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/grand-bargain-workshop-report---linking-humanitarian-cash-and-social-protection-2019.pdf

Food Security Cluster. (2018, August). Lessons Learned Exercise: Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) Task Force Coordination in Turkey. Accessible: https://www.alnap.org/help-library/lessons-learned-exercise-emergency-social-safety-net-essn-task-force-coordination-in

Opitz-Stapleton, S., Nadin, R., Kellett, J., Calderone, M., Quevedo, A., Peters, K. and Mayhew, L. (2019, May). Risk-informed development: From crisis to resilience, Overseas Development Institute. Accessible: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/12711.pdf 

Rowe, G. (2019). SPaN (2019) Operational note No9: Fragility, EU Guidance Package on Social Protection across the Humanitarian-Development Nexus (SPaN). Accessible: https://europa.eu/capacity4dev/sp-nexus/documents/span-2019-operational-note-9-fragility

Social Protection Inter-Agency Cooperation Board (2019). Leaving no one behind: How linking social protection and humanitarian action can bridge the development-humanitarian divide. Accessible: https://www.ipc-undp.org/pub/sites/default/files/SPIACBstatementWHS.pdf

World Food Programme (2019, June). The Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN): Helping Refugees in Turkey, World Food Programme. Accessible: https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000104792/download/?_ga=2.109713606.2139577042.1565549867-112053998.1565549867

Humanitarian Coalition. What is a Humanitarian Emergency?. Accessed August 2019. Accessible: https://www.humanitariancoalition.ca/our-members