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  • Writer's pictureMichael Field

Can Social Safety Nets and Market Development Work Together?


Over the last few years there has a been an interesting evolution in my thinking that initially was grounded in questions about systemic resilience. Central to understanding resilience has been how societies manage risks around shocks and stresses. However, from a systems thinking perspective, how communities are managing risks is only a small part of the challenge. How to do societies mange risks across communities, regional etc.? What are the patterns in investment, policies, etc. that indicate an orientation in how societies perceive and think about risks related to stresses and shocks? In starting to investigate these and other questions regarding how a society could shift in ways to better manage known and knowable risks. IN particular, why and how could a society via its political and market systems manage risks across groups/communities at a systemic level, which has in more developed countries limited the burden placed on individual isolated communities.

Taking northern Kenya as an example, the communities have evolved ways to manage risks from shocks and stresses based primarily on their ability to absorb the risks through strong communal fabric. All members of the community are essential threads in the fabric, and as long as community members can maintain their roles the fabric can absorb enormous amounts of hardship. In addition to communal loyalty, communities seek to accumulate resources and see outsiders often as rivals for scarce resources. Resilience programming has primarily sought to bolster a community’s ability to weather shocks and stresses by reinforcing their absorptive capacity, which makes complete sense.

While much of this is not new, when systems lenses are applied to this landscape some interesting insights and questions arose. Primary among them is a question about how does this landscape and the efforts around it align with efforts to get a country to middle income status. More specifically are these efforts leading to an improved capacity at a nation-state level to manage stresses and shocks over time so they can remain on a path to middle-income status? This question has implications past resilience tied to shocks like drought in northern Kenya as many NGOs that focus on the most vulnerable also focus on the resilience of those communities in relation to day-to-day stresses that leave them on a knife’s edge. For organizations and practitioners working in areas prone to bigger shocks and stresses or those working in areas where vulnerable populations are often under stress related to basic needs, they have tended toward focusing on social safety net services as essential to stabilize the communities. While this is makes sense, as practitioners have become more aware of systems thinking and applied systems lenses question continue to arise related to how such programming aligns with supporting a country towards becoming self-reliant.

It would be expected that as a country moves toward middle income status and greater self reliance, it would also see the value in investing in mechanisms and tools to manage stresses and shocks in ways that reduces the burden on its populations. This expectation brings to light an important conversation that has started, but needs to progress much further. Specifically, how should/could practitioners engage around shifting the way the system provides social safety net services, as opposed to providing the services themselves. The challenge here is that any such suggestion has to recognize that there would be a gap around social safety net services. This challenge would not be easy to address but it is critical, especially once it is understood that social safety net services are central to market system development. They are also essential to a society’s ability to manage resilience at a higher systemic level in ways that can mitigate and neutralize known and knowable risks without forcing individual communities to always take it on the chin.

A serious conversation about how societies manage known and knowable risks including how that affects markets, political, social, etc. systems is essential. It is increasingly clear that as a result of international development evolving multiple stove-piped areas of investment, many efforts now work at cross purposes. Systems thinking has provided effective lenses to see how and why alignment across these domains is needed and possible – even if it is not going to be easy.

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