Belize is a small island developing state nestled in Central America and the Caribbean home to a population of 441,471 persons. Despite being a well-known tourist destination, the country continues to face several challenges with a poverty rate of fifty-two per cent (52%). As a Small Island Developing States (SIDS), it is also vulnerable to natural disasters. To ensure that the most vulnerable populations are protected from such stresses, the Government of Belize (GoB) has partnered with the United Nations (UN) under the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Fund to strengthen its social protection policies, programmes and capacities through the Joint Programme (JP) “Building a Resilient Belize through Universal, Adaptive and Sustainable Social Protection” launched in 2022. In its first year of implementation, the JP, supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the International Labour Organization (ILO), has demonstrated key progress in building capacities and developing partnerships, contributing to improve the social protection system and leave no one behind (LNOB).
Social Protection – A National Priority for Belize
As the JP enters its second year of implementation, the GoB reiterates the relevance of the programme, which is directly linked to two priority areas under the Government’s Medium-Term Development Strategy (MTDS) 2022-2026, namely Poverty Reduction and Economic Transformation. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Ministry of Human Development, Families and Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs (MHDFIPA), Mrs. Tanya Santos-Neal, acknowledges the importance of the programme and its results:
"This Joint Programme is very important for the Ministry of Human Development, Families and Indigenous Peoples' Affairs as it aims to support the government's priority of poverty reduction and ensuring social protection efforts are designed to address the realities of the families most in need. Personally, the Social Protection Strategy that will be created under this Programme will support the Ministry in making evidence-based decisions well beyond the project's life." -Mrs. Tanya Santos-Neal, Chief Executive Officer, Ministry of Human Development, Families and Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs
Building Institutional Capacities and Creating an Enabling Environment to reach the Most Vulnerable
One of the key areas the JP has been able to support is the strengthening of national social protection system capacities in Belize. A total of forty-three (43) beneficiaries from the Government and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) were able to gain knowledge in the area of social protection, as two major capacity building events were executed in 2022. These trainings will be valuable for the Government and the UN’s joint efforts in enabling universal, adaptive, and sustainable social protection. The first was the training by WFP on “Shock-Responsive Social Protection (SRSP) in the Caribbean” based on research done in partnership with Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) and Oxford Policy Management. The course started in May 2022 with an e-learning component, followed by a face-to-face training in August 2022. The training aimed to raise awareness of the importance and key principles in strengthening government systems to be used in response. It also aimed to strengthen the links between social protection and disaster risk management. Ninety-one per cent (91%) of the participants indicated that the training deepened their knowledge and skills, while ninety-nine per cent (99%) rated the training as satisfactory.
The second was the training on “Financing Social Protection and Key Social Sectors that Matter for Children” held in St. Lucia in October 2022 by the UNICEF Eastern Caribbean Area, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization’s International Training Center (ITCILO). The training was well received by the Belizean cohort to support the costed Social Protection Strategy for Belize. Participants obtained knowledge about social sector costing, value for money analysis tools, equity in financing of services for children and medium and long-term financing strategies.
“[…] what I appreciated most about this course was I was really able to apply a lot of the things I’ve learnt in a practical way and not only for my own knowledge but amongst my other Caribbean countries and colleagues as well and I learnt a lot from their experiences.” - Gabrielle Hulse, Economist, Ministry of Finance, Economic Development and Investment
Establishing Critical Partnerships to foster Digitalization and Leave No One Behind
A core challenge to accessing social protection support remains access to banking. This is particularly true for rural and vulnerable groups including migrants and indigenous persons. Mobile technologies, and innovative approaches, including digital payment are becoming a breakthrough in advancing the social protection system, allowing programmes to reach the most vulnerable when they need the cash support at no cost to beneficiaries, especially, in emergency situations. In 2022, and as part of the synergies created through the JP, key partnerships with a national Financial Service Provider DigiWallet Ltd. were established, with the aim to formalize additional cash transfer mechanisms, increase financial inclusion and reach the most vulnerable.
“As a payment service provider, we understand the importance of providing safe and accessible financial services to all individuals, regardless of their location or financial status. […] we will be able to leverage our digital payment platform to quickly and efficiently distribute cash to those in need.” - Melanie Blake, General Manager of DigiWallet Ltd.
Thanks to its catalytic approach, the JP also allowed stakeholders to mobilize additional resources and deliver cash transfers, using the DigiWallet Technology. In December, UNICEF, DigiWallet Ltd., and Belize Red Cross provided cash transfers to nine hundred (900) children of migrant families. Around the same time, WFP leveraged the MHDFIPA partnership with DigiWallet to support cash assistance to one thousand six hundred (1,600) households, or an estimated six thousand four hundred (6,400) individuals affected by Hurricane Lisa which hit Belize in November 2022. The beneficiaries highlighted how the cash transfer support was able to help them in ensuring that their livelihoods were maintained throughout the shocks experienced.
“Actually the (Digiwallet) money we received helped. I had already purchased some used zinc from my neighbour who said we could owe him for the zinc. So when I received the money I just gave them the money cause we purchased their zinc. … It was my first time using it (Digiwallet). But I would use it again. You can do a lot of things with it; you don’t have to cash out the money you can go and purchase things with it. It’s best sometimes that you don’t have cash so you don’t have to worry…” - Shern Moguel, Beneficiary
As the JP enters its second year of implementation, the United Nations joint approach to catalyzing social protection systems in Belize continues to contribute to the reinforcement of the overall social protection system to better position the country to advance the SDGs.