Our blogger, Richard Chirchir, is a Director and Senior Management Information System Specialist for Development Pathways.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages like a wild inferno at a global scale, humanity is neck-deep in responding with every resource, instrument, policy and strategy that is at its disposal. We have all witnessed unprecedented measures including lockdowns, quarantines, curfews, social distancing and restricted travel, most of which were last witnessed during the world wars.
In this respect, countries that generally have a large formal workforce are racing to put in place strong economic measures such as unemployment insurance schemes, government-guaranteed interest-free loans for businesses, and enhanced social security programmes for vulnerable populations.
On the other hand, low- and middle-income countries have to grapple with a vastly informal labour market and immature social protection systems that generally have low coverage rates. Irrespective of the level of income and resources that different countries have at their disposal, social protection is one of the key instruments that countries can deploy to fight COVID-19. Never has the world witnessed the use of social protection systems at such a large-scale.
But how do you deliver these social protection programmes quickly, efficiently and safely, when a country is supposed to be in lockdown and there is a need to protect vulnerable sectors of the population from contracting COVID-19?
Despite immature social protection systems, low- and middle-income countries can leverage existing technology solutions to provide social protection support to vulnerable populations at this critical period without having to build these systems from scratch. Indeed, many countries have already built shock responsive systems underpinned by registries of potential vulnerable populations, linked to early warning systems, over the past couple of years. Others have been testing new inclusive social protection systems aimed at addressing the risks that citizens experience across their life cycle.
Irrespective of the type of social protection scheme and/or level of maturity of the system, what is critical at this difficult time is to ensure that cash is delivered to intended beneficiaries on a timely basis. Moreover, countries should strive to expand coverage of social transfers – for example, by reducing the eligibility age for a social pension – without putting new beneficiaries at risk during the registration and payments process.
How can this be achieved?
Technology can play a crucial role in augmenting social protection delivery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the following seven ways:
1. Simplify information and other business requirements for COVID-19 social protection interventions.
The COVID-19 social protection response should be simple to implement and must consider the contextual constraints and opportunities of low- and middle-income countries. A key consideration in the design are the information parameters that need to be collected in order to register beneficiaries and deliver the payments. Overall, there is a general consensus among social protection experts that this is not the time to design restrictive poverty-targeted schemes. Therefore, essential information parameters such as ID numbers, names, addresses and mobile numbers (if needed for delivery) should be collected instead of additional monitoring information such as assets, household composition and socio-economic details. Furthermore, it is essential that the whole process incorporates key human rights considerations such as the right to privacy and data confidentiality.
2. Build on existing integrated information management systems and payment platforms.
Countries that have already invested in integrated Management Information Systems (MISs) linked to payment service provider systems, and/or employ electronic payment platforms that use two-factor payment mechanisms should utilise these technologies for funds requisition processes, in order to deliver the payments rapidly. Cashless payment delivery – for example, through mobile money accounts – should be encouraged to avoid risks of crowding, and the spreading of the virus through the handling of cash. Furthermore, re-using devices – such as point of sale machines – exacerbates the risk of spreading COVID-19, especially when PIN numbers or biometric fingerprints are required for authentication.
3. Re-use administrative registries and self-registration technology mechanisms to reach out to additional beneficiaries.
Electronic single windows for social protection and other digital self-registration mechanisms, which are based on web, mobile or USSD (see Box 1) technologies can be utilised to quickly register new beneficiaries who can then be paid using appropriate electronic payment modalities. Where existing registries exist, quick assessments should be made on their relevancy for different types of social protection interventions, as well as their data protection and confidentiality requirements.
4. Rapidly build specific technology components for COVID-19 response.
Depending on the nature of the COVID-19 social protection interventions, new information systems or technology platforms for social protection may need to be developed to supplement existing ones. Whereas existing social protection MISs could have been developed for regular non-pandemic periods, rapid responses are now needed for additional vulnerable populations. Typically, new information systems would take months if not years to develop and implement, depending on the complexity of their requirements and the technology platforms used. However, if requirements are simple (e.g. a registration system for essential information parameters), then simple and functional information systems – using technologies such as USSD – can be developed in a matter of weeks. Of course, this would be dependent on collaborations with technology providers and the agencies responsible for coordinating COVID-19 responses.
5. Re-use existing data hosting platforms.
Behind every social protection programme is a lot of data being generated and this needs to be stored securely and backed up somewhere. In normal circumstances, a comprehensive assessment is usually made in terms of the data hosting and infrastructure requirements as part of the information system design. But, in the context of COVID-19, the key technology solutions that are needed to support social protection interventions must be quickly deployed. So, it is perhaps unnecessary to build physical hardware data centres – or server rooms – to keep data. Physical data centres are resource-heavy and time-consuming to set up, as they require hardware infrastructure to be replaced every five years; reliable electricity or backup generators; physical security measures such as Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras; biometric doors; logical security measures such as firewalls; data backup sites in case of disaster; and, importantly, trained staff to administer the centre. Therefore, existing data centres should be utilised instead to host the information systems. Of course, due consideration should be paid to data privacy, security and confidentiality.
6. Strengthen digital literacy and provide feedback systems.
With a switch to e-digital tools both for registration and the delivery of the COVID-19 social protection interventions, it is critical that these are accompanied by public information campaigns using appropriate mediums. It is worth noting that without the digital literacy programmes, applicants and beneficiaries of benefits may be open to fraud or scams. Importantly, an appropriate feedback system should be provided that uses toll-free numbers underpinned by automated feedback systems using SMSs, phone calls etc. Language considerations should be made when providing feedback or receiving complaints. These steps also need to be mindful of data privacy, security and confidentiality considerations.
7. Coordinate with existing governance systems.
Several countries have established COVID-19 emergency response teams at the national and sub-national levels. These teams coordinate interventions to ensure that responses are safe and effective both for beneficiaries and the general public. So, any technology-supported social protection intervention must be rolled out in coordination with other government led emergency responses.
Technology at the service of social protection in times of pandemics.
Whereas existing social protection systems may not have been designed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, technology can augment current initiatives to expand social protection support to additional vulnerable populations. By leveraging existing integrated information management systems and payment platforms, social protection programmes can provide support to existing or new beneficiaries. In addition to re-using administrative registries and self-registration technology, rapidly building specific technology components such as USSD provides a technology platform to increase the coverage of social protection systems. And, these new technology tools can be hosted on existing data hosting platforms, inexpensively. However, COVID-19 digital initiatives can only be successful if digital literacy is strengthened among vulnerable populations and feedback systems established in coordination with existing governance systems.
Finally, it is worth ensuring that the technology solutions that are developed for the COVID-19 response are linked to broader social protection systems as part of building a comprehensive system that can be truly resilient to pandemics. Social protection systems should be more than the shock-responsive, poverty-targeted systems of yester-years. They should be inclusive, lifecycle social security systems that recognise that we are all vulnerable and at risk of falling into poverty, especially during a pandemic.
Check out our infographic illustrating this blog here.
 Chirchir, R. and Barca, V., Building an integrated and digital social protection information management system: Technical paper, 2020
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Pathways’ Perspective: What has the Covid-19 crisis taught us about social protection?
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