What’s a Safety Net?

Published April 22, 2015
Last Updated May 10, 2021

For some people, the phrase “safety net” conjures up memories of going to the circus as a kid and seeing big nets stretched out below the trapeze artists.

Let us surprise you a bit by saying that this concept is actually not that far off when it comes to global hunger relief.

We just need to make a few substitutions:

Instead of protecting trapeze artists, the safety nets we’re talking about protect poor and vulnerable people during times of sudden crisis.

Those of us with more resources can rely on savings accounts, insurance, extended family, and other support networks when disaster strikes. We might still worry what would happen if we got sick, or our house caught on fire, or if we suddenly got laid off, but those of us with resources are likely to put some safeguards in place just in case bad things happen to us. Or in the worst case scenario, we may have some sort of government or charity resources available to us.

But people in low-income countries have less protection in times of natural disaster or conflict.  Instead of being engaged in an inherently dangerous activity, these poor and vulnerable people are just going about the everyday risky business of living. They have greater exposure to health risks: malnutrition, disease, and lack of health care, and much fewer resources to protect them from falling deeper into poverty during times of crisis.

When drought destroys a family’s crops or the breadwinner gets injured, or their child becomes desperately ill, families in these precarious conditions are often forced to sell off what little assets they have to survive—their only cow or cart, thus selling off their future to cope in the present.

Instead of being actual nets, the safety net programs we’re talking about provide a solid foundation for the world’s most vulnerable – ensuring that they are able to survive and rebuild when disaster strikes. Safety nets include crop insurance and other strategies such as food or cash for work programs that exchange food or cash for work on community infrastructure or disaster risk reduction projects that benefit the entire community and help families mitigate risk.

For example, Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Nets Program (PSNP) is one example of a highly successful program that both eases families’ immediate hunger and helps them develop skills and build assets to reduce the risk of future hunger. PSNP works by paying people – many of whom are small-scale farmers – in cash or food to construct irrigation and terracing systems that help prevent hunger in the event of a drought.

Programs like PSNP are essential because let’s face it. Disasters happen. Life is unpredictable. We all endure times of crisis.

Those of us who can weather life’s crises without losing everything we’ve ever worked for are a privileged few.

But smart safety net systems can protect the world’s most vulnerable people from losing everything. Safety nets enable families to develop greater resilience and capacity to not just cope with but bounce back from crisis.

That’s why the Roadmap Policy Brief highlights the need to build strong safety net programs and systems as a key component of ending global hunger. That’s also why the Roadmap Policy Brief calls for Congress to pass legislation supporting a comprehensive U.S. strategy to reduce global hunger and malnutrition, such as the bipartisan Global Food Security Act (H.R. 1567) introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Chris Smith of the 4th district of New Jersey and Betty McCollum of the 4th district of Minnesota. We hope you will read the brief, support the bill and advance this vital work!

*Heather Hanson is the Vice President of Public Policy at World Food Program USA in Washington, D.C.  Dr. Hanson has over 25 years of experience in humanitarian relief and development work, and most recently served as Senior Policy Advisor at the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

*David Kauck is the Associate Vice President for Hunger and Livelihoods at Save the Children USA.