Helping to reduce vulnerability poses a new set of challenges for public policy. The most immediate challenge is to determine the appropriate role for public action if there should be a role at all. A starting point is the ways that communities and extended families try to cope with difficullties in the absence of government interventions. Coping mechanisms range from the informal exchange of transfers and loans within families and commmunitieis to more structured institutions that enable an entire community to provides protections to their neediest members. The existence of this web of private and nonformal mechanisms pompts a series of questions: Will building public safety nets displace existing mechanisms and offer limited net gain to households? Would it be more effective to strengthen existing mechanisms than creating new ones? Can the private sector and NGOs play larger roles? This paper provides some speculative answers and describes places for public action, as well as its limits.
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