Cash Transfers and Vulnerable Populations: Understanding Pandemic-Era Interventions Through a Modern Slavery Prevention Lens

30 March 2022
Research Innovation

Alice Eckstein  | Project Director - Delta 8.7

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed widespread gaps in protection for vulnerable workers and has brought new attention to the importance of social protection policies to mitigate risk of exploitation in the context of crisis. In response to COVID-19, governments across the world took measures to protect vulnerable populations from the adverse impacts of the pandemic. However, as countries have stepped up efforts to contain the effects of the health threat and mitigate negative consequences of movement restrictions and job losses, COVID-19 has also exposed gaps in protection for some of the most exploited communities. 

From October 2021–March 2022, Delta 8.7 undertook a social protection policy mapping exercise, specifically looking at the impact and potential effectiveness of cash transfers to mitigate vulnerability to modern slavery. This consisted of mapping nearly 100 countries’ use of cash transfers during the pandemic, specifically to determine to what extent each programme covered populations considered most vulnerable to modern slavery, human trafficking, forced labour or child labour. This mapping exercise, focused on UK Call to Action and Alliance 8.7 Pathfinder countries, was enriched by desk-based research and interviews with policy actors and researchers to develop case studies for each of three countries: Brazil, India and Nigeria.  This approach was intended to build on wider efforts to monitor social protection measures taken since the onset of the pandemic and to complement emerging analyses of countries’ early responses at national, regional or global levels by applying a modern slavery prevention lens to social protection measures. The project explored the degree to which policymakers might have implemented an anti-slavery lens in their creation and delivery of cash transfers during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as analysis of the effectiveness of cash transfers to mitigate vulnerability to modern slavery. With the full research to be released in April 2022, this Forum contribution summarizes some initial observations drawn from the desk research and interviews.

Conceptual framework for the roles of cash transfers from the Delta 8.7 Cash Transfer Mapping Report

The three case studies covered some diverse approaches to the use and delivery of cash transfers in three countries that have all implemented ambitious financial inclusion programmes for their populations. In the case of Brazil, there was already a robust conditional cash transfer programme in place before the pandemic. The Bolsa Família (in English: Family Fund), instituted in 2003, offered support to poor families with children between the ages of 0 – 17. As a condition of receipt, families must vaccinate their children and ensure they regularly attend school. Without having an explicitly stated goal of preventing child labour or forms of modern slavery, the programme had a significant effect on reduction of poverty and on increasing school attendance. The Brazilian Government expanded cash transfers during the pandemic through the Auxílio Emergencial (in English: Emergency Aid), which was offered to recipients of the Bolsa Família as well as to female-headed families, informal workers or micro-entrepreneurs whose household income falls below a set level.

In India, research found an ambitious suite of cash transfer and financial inclusion schemes pre-pandemic, but uneven uptake and access to these support programmes. Focusing on the Indian state of Bihar, which is one of the least-developed States and one with a high level of both domestic and foreign labour migration, the research examined some of the ways in which social protections in India have been targeted to address rural poverty, including through cash transfers to farmers and rural employment schemes. During the pandemic, existing pathways for cash transfers were employed to deliver assistance, including through one programme specifically developed to support the safe return of stranded Bihari migrant workers to their home communities.

Nigeria also employed existing delivery pathways to offer pandemic support to poor households as well as to increase the number of beneficiaries. As with the programmes in Brazil and India, these were not identified as measures designed specifically to prevent modern slavery. Instead, they were part of a suite of initiatives designed to “tackle poverty and hunger across the country” and later expanded to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable. Interviewees did note, however, the potential indirect knock-on effects of the cash transfer programme on those most vulnerable to modern slavery, citing poverty as a key factor in driving risk to modern slavery and cash transfers’ potential to encourage positive change and behaviours among beneficiary groups, including increasing school attendance which has been correlated in some settings with a reduction in child labour.   

While analysing three distinct countries and regions, the case studies revealed some similar approaches to the use of cash transfers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital transfers were a primary delivery pathway, both because all countries had developed some infrastructure to support such delivery already and because they aligned well with lockdowns and travel restrictions. While the use of digital transfers was a strength for rapid and efficient access to support, the delivery method also proved a significant barrier to access by some of the most vulnerable populations. In all cases, those without access to mobile phones, internet and electricity faced challenges in accessing funds. Similarly, research in each country suggested that lack of awareness of either the assistance or how to access it resulted in uneven uptake of cash transfers, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.

The case study research also found that implementation of cash transfer programmes was not designed with an explicit anti-slavery lens. In each case, cash transfers were considered as having utility in addressing poverty and food insecurity generally, and the expansion of cash transfers during the pandemic was of short duration and was intended to offset the most immediate consequences of lockdowns and resulting unemployment. What this research suggested is that cash transfers have not yet been seriously designed to mitigate vulnerability to modern slavery, but that for them to effectively prevent exploitation, cash transfer programmes — in combination with other protection measures — must not only meet the material needs of individuals but also provide them with some measure of financial flexibility to pursue varied life projects. It is thus also imperative that cash transfer programmes be coupled with wider financial inclusion measures, robust outreach to make individuals aware of their rights and entitlements, and improved access to infrastructure (education, health and employment) to enable greater agency in communities.

This article has been prepared by Alice Eckstein as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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