For 30 years, WFP has collaborated with a vast network of Standby Partners consisting of public and private organizations that complement WFP’s operational capacity by providing staffing, equipment, and services.
Standby Partnerships are activated in various job positions and provide crucial support to WFP operations in emergencies or when WFP needs specific technical expertise.
We spoke with Natacha Pugin, a Social Protection Specialist deployed in Sri Lanka for 24 months by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Natacha spoke with us about her responsibilities in a country facing socio-economic challenges including malnutrition and gender disparities, natural hazards, and the effects of COVID-19.
1. For the past 24 months you have supported WFP’s work in Sri Lanka. Why have you decided to contribute your time and experience as a Standby Partner?
After 7 years working in the private sector, I decided to commit to humanitarian work, focusing on cash-based transfer programming (CBT) linked to social protection. I strongly believe investing in social protection is one of the best strategies to reduce inequalities and disparities. I have been a part of the Swiss humanitarian pool of experts since 2013 and appreciate how the Standby Partnership mechanism allows me to use my skills in diversified contexts.
When I was offered the opportunity to strengthen WFP’s social protection engagement in Sri Lanka, I did not hesitate. The fact that the COVID-19 response quickly became a key component of the position did not deter me; this unprecedented pandemic only emphasised how critical it is to expand social protection coverage in challenging environments.
2. What are your main tasks during this deployment?
I support WFP in working with the Government and other important stakeholders towards improving national social protection systems. It’s a rewarding role because effective social protection programmes (ie. nutrition, school feeding, asset creation, etc) help maintain people’s standards of living. Through vital access to basic foods, healthcare or education, such programmes provide essential safety nets to alleviate poverty and help households manage socio-economic shocks.
While Governments are primarily responsible for protecting their communities and ensuring that the essential needs of citizens are met, WFP is uniquely positioned to rapidly deliver and scale up social protection programmes. As part of my responsibilities, I lead policy dialogues with the Government and key partners, provide guidance for the formulation of social protection programmes, support medium/long-term COVID-19 response plans, deliver trainings, oversee evidence-building, etc to achieve our common objectives.
3. How do you work with WFP’s team, partners and people assisted?
Together with a Korean UNV and the national colleagues in the Social Protection team, I work closely with WFP teams to mainstream social protection and incorporate it within our programmes. Fortunately, the Country Office’s colleagues - including Nutrition, Monitoring & Evaluation, Technology and even Supply Chain teams- are committed to what we want to achieve.
Enhancing partnerships is also a key pillar of my work. I am actively engaged in the United Nations Social Protection Working Group and interact with various partners, including Government entities such as the Department of Samurdhi Development which operates the country’s largest national safety net programme, the World Bank, NGOs, etc. We work together to incorporate the principles of social protection into many areas, including emergency preparedness and women’s empowerment.
I also interact as much as possible with the beneficiaries. They are the heart of everything we do. I am regularly in the field to understand their needs and identify ways to change and improve their lives.
4. What challenges do you face during your assignment, and how do you resolve them? What surprised you the most?
Navigating Sri Lanka’s fragmented social protection systems - Sri Lanka has over 30 schemes handled by various Ministries - has been the biggest challenge. Significant preliminary work (ie. advocacy, capacity building) is required before we can commence the implementation of projects.
Working in the midst of COVID-19 was another hurdle. As with many other countries, the pandemic’s socio-economic impacts plunged many families into poverty. With more than 70% of the workforce employed in the informal sector, many people lost their jobs and were pushed deeper into a cycle of food insecurity and vulnerability. Despite having achieved upper middle-income status only the year before, in 2020 the World Bank once again downgraded Sri Lanka to a lower middle-income country.
“Social protection is not only about immediate assistance to the vulnerable groups; it is a long-term societal investment in the future of a nation”.
5. What are your key achievements, and where do you feel your work has made an impact?
A lot has been achieved! WFP has positioned itself as a significant social protection player vis-à-vis the Government. This was achieved by effectively leading multisectoral dialogue, policy adaptation, review of social assistance’s current coverage, promotion of alternative schemes to reach groups insufficiently covered (or not covered at all) by existing safety nets, support to increase CBT digitization, capacity strengthening, etc.
With regards to beneficiaries, several impactful activities were implemented. For example, following a request received from the Government in March 2021, a project was implemented in Kalutara – a district affected by recurring floods – to provide cash through digital transfers. Given the project’s positive outcome, this model will be scaled up in the future. In order to empower women (including pregnant and nursing mothers), nutrition and social behaviour change activities were an important component of our programming.
The reality is that women are often at a disadvantage, not only because COVID-19 heightened their vulnerability, but also because many of them work in the informal sector, which is not covered by social protection systems. Social behaviour change activities promote positive outcomes for improved gender equality.
I am also excited that WFP Regional Office selected the Sri Lanka Country Office for a scoping exercise aiming to provide tangible recommendations for the second generation of the Country Strategic Plan (CSP, 2023 - 2027).
6. Has there been a remarkable personal moment during your assignment? What is your best story?
Definitely. There are so many stories to tell! Suramya, a young widow I met in a rural village in the Kalutara district, is one of them When her husband, who was the sole breadwinner of the family, suddenly passed away she was left with three children to care for, including a baby. Basic food items such as milk or meat became a luxury! She went into debt and was unable to feed her family with proper food. Her story moved me deeply.
Fortunately, WFP partnered with departmental authorities to provide digital cash-based assistance to Suramya and other women in similar situations. The timely cash provision enabled them to address their family’s basic and nutritional needs.
7. What are the main lessons learned?
We all face socioeconomic risks in our lives. In such situations, robust social protection systems could prevent us from slipping into poverty. Social protection is not only about immediate assistance to the vulnerable groups; it is a long-term societal investment in the future of a nation.
The collaboration between WFP and the Government of Sri Lanka must continue for far-reaching impact which can further contribute to social cohesion. A greater focus on women is also important; not only are they disproportionately disadvantaged in the face of hardship, they are also key to economic recovery. Women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity, increases economic diversification and income equality in addition to other positive outcomes.
And… my engagement is stronger than ever!
“WFP places emphasis on enhancing social protection systems to safeguard and help people meet their food and nutrition security needs,” says Andrea Berardo, Deputy Country Director of WFP, Sri Lanka. “We are grateful to the Swiss Development Cooperation in supporting us with specialized expertise made available through the Standby Partner programme. Natacha’s contribution provides us with invaluable technical input to augment our social protection efforts and scale-up policy advocacy.”
For deployment of standby expertise, provision of services and equipment through corporate partners, please reach out to ALITE team in the Emergency Operations Division at ALITE@wfp.org.