Key Takeaways

During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments relied heavily on social protection as a key policy instrument to protect their population, in particular vulnerable groups such as the poor, older persons, women, children, and those employed in the informal sector. As the crisis continued, it provided further evidence to social protection’s role, not only as a short-term crisis response tool, but also as an important policy instrument for building long-term resilience and well-being for a wider population.

  As the world deals with unforeseen challenges, structural changes – including climate change, demographic shifts, rapid globalization, technological advances, and urbanization – are also shaping the scope of social protection in the Asia and Pacific region. For social protection systems to work, it is critical that social protection policies and programs are inclusive, adaptive, and shock-responsive to ensure they benefit poor and vulnerable households and build long-term resilience.

Armed with the lessons and experiences of the past years, ADB sees the following emerging trends in social protection:

  • Challenges and opportunities

    Government health spending across the lifecycle is a good investment with major social and economic returns.

  • Local governance

    Strong growth and social development have led to the region rapidly aging, with important economic and social consequences.

Expanding coverage for vulnerable groups

The pandemic highlighted the importance of universal social protection. Many countries have responded by providing an integrated mix of social insurance, social assistance, and labor market programs. For example, health insurance programs in some countries, like Cambodia, Indonesia, and Viet Nam, were integrated with broader social protection systems. In addition to contributory pensions, a number of countries like People’s Republic of China, the Philippines, and Thailand, are extending noncontributory, tax-funded provision of health coverage for poor and sometimes near-poor people.

The region has also seen new and expanding social assistance programs for people with disabilities. Traditionally, social protection programs for people with disabilities were aimed only to compensate for the loss of capacity to work. Countries are now supporting these programs with assistive devices, targeted cash transfers, and increasing access to existing social protection programs and services like healthcare, transport, education, and employment.

In the Pacific, governments are expanding social pensions, disability grants, child benefits, and other such programs to cover a larger share of the population.

Integrating social protection with social services

Social protection systems in Asia will integrate with social services, both improving access and linking to more comprehensive programs. Social protection’s scope has long included ensuring that all people have access to vital services, particularly early childhood care and development, care and support services for persons with disabilities and older persons, and cash and service support to caregivers. Linkages with social services will further enable social protection’s greatest developmental impacts. The aging of the population is expanding the demand for care and support services for older people and honing the imperative for early childhood investments to drive future labor productivity.

Photo: Asian Development Bank
Sri Lanka’s government workers check national identity cards in Colombo prior to distributing cash to its citizens.

Strengthening the social dimension of the transition to green and sustainable livelihoods

Governments, international organizations, and civil society organizations recognize the accelerating pace of climate change as the greatest development challenge of our time. More severe climate shocks are propelling the urgency to develop shock-responsive and adaptive social protection systems.

The future involves linking social protection with multisector strategies that support an integration of climate, development, and equity initiatives as they tackle poverty and contribute towards green and sustainable growth.

  Social protection will aim to build resilience by strengthening human capital, improving social risk management, and reinforcing trust and social cohesion. All these are seen to build the foundation for a transition to a green and sustainable economy and society.

Utilizing inclusive digital technologies

While social protection systems have progressively adopted digital innovations in registration and payment mechanisms over the previous decades, the pandemic has rapidly accelerated such digitalization across Asia, including telehealth, remote learning, e-markets, adaptive livelihoods, financial inclusion and other development areas.

Digital technologies have enabled governments and development partners to effectively deliver social protection benefits to millions of people. By lowering the delivery costs to governments, as well as private costs to beneficiaries in accessing benefits, these innovations will provide financial, economic, and social returns that improve people’s access to services.

Developing monitoring, data collection, and evidence for more effective social protection systems

The growing digitalization of social protection systems creates demand for and enables better data-driven monitoring and evidence-based planning.

The COVID-19 crisis has sharpened the urgency of adapting innovative approaches to data collection and monitoring. This has motivated the development of new technologies that harness big data, satellite imagery, and other nontraditional data sources and analytical engines driven by artificial intelligence.

Investing in early childhood development and focusing on youth

Social protection, health, education, water and sanitation, care practices, are important for young children, moreso in the Pacific where many of the services are still lacking. Investments in them have been identified as among the highest-yielding initiatives supporting future economic growth.

The youth in the Pacific needs an integrated lifecycle approach, starting from early childhood initiatives to programs that support their education and help them find suitable jobs and livelihood opportunities. Governments are creating programs to ensure that the youth can transition into productive adults.


ADB is helping its developing member countries enhance resilience to shocks, improve skills for the labor market, and integrate climate resilience in all its social protection policies.

  ADB has recently endorsed Social Protection Directional Guide 2022-2030 “Toward Inclusive and Resilient Social Protection”, which provides the vision and steps for building more inclusive and resilient social protection policies and systems.

This vision can be realized through the achievement of the following strategic objectives: (i) comprehensive social protection policies and programs: (ii) integrated solutions with amplified development impact; and (iii) adaptive and shock-responsive social protection. This is envisioned through four key operational pillars, which include: (i) strengthening social protection policies and systems; (ii) supporting integrated inter-sectoral initiatives; (iii) scaling up sustainable and catalytic financing; and (iv) building partnerships.

ADB's Social Protection Vision and Approach