Reaching Outsiders in a Pandemic

A Subnational Comparative Analysis of COVID-19 Social Assistance in Urban Colombia

Most countries have made major investments in social assistance to mitigate the socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, large numbers of people—most of them informal workers living at the urban margins, whose needs are not easily “legible” to authorities—have remained underserved and are facing dire conditions. What are governments doing to reach and aid these vulnerable populations amid the pandemic?

Cali, Medellín, Soacha, and Bogotá – Photos by Juan Diego Prieto Sanabria

This study addresses the politics of COVID-19 social assistance in urban Colombia. Focusing on 22 cities, the study aims to characterize subnational governments’ emergency assistance measures for “urban outsiders” (defined as poor city residents who are not covered by existing social programs), document how beneficiaries are being identified and selected, and explain why different governments have adopted different approaches for identifying and assisting outsiders.

The study relies solely on remote methods—information requests to local governments, long-distance interviews with public officials and community organizations, and online sources—and it is designed as a rapid-response study to the pandemic and its socioeconomic impacts. The study’s findings will provide practical insights about how to improve aid targeting and delivery for the most vulnerable sectors of society during the COVID-19 pandemic (as well in the long-term post-COVID recovery), while also shedding light on broader theoretical discussions about the political economy of urban informality, social policy, and subnational state capacity.