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Social registry…or regular sophistry

23/06/2021

By Nicholas Freeland

Stephen Kidd’s recent paper sets out very clearly the problems associated with the use to which social registries are commonly put: poverty targeting of social assistance, primarily through proxy means testing. I agree with many of his misgivings. But I have an even more fundamental concern about the concept of a “social registry”: what is it intended to be a registry of? 

A registry is defined as “an authoritative list of one kind of information” (Wikipedia); “an official or authoritative book of records”(OED), “a collection of all the official records relating to something” (Chambers). To be useful and truly “authoritative”, a registry must be accurate and comprehensive, ideally exhaustive. So a land registry is a record of the ownership of all plots of land; a driver and vehicle licensing registry is a list of all licensed vehicles and of all those holding a license to drive them; Lloyd’s register is (and has been since 1764!) a list of all seagoing, self-propelled merchant ships of 100 gross tonnes or greater; a domain name registry is a complete list of registrants of all allocated Internet domains; and a civil registry (as discussed in Stephen’s paper) is a comprehensive recording of all births, marriages and deaths in a country. If such registries are incomplete or outdated or inaccurate, they cease to be authoritative, so they are not registries. 

On this basis, and in the context of social protection, I can understand that a beneficiary registry is a list of all beneficiaries of a social protection programme; by extension that an integrated (or unified) beneficiary registry is a combined registry of beneficiaries of multiple social protection programmes; and even – though perhaps this becomes a bit more tenuous – that a single registry might be considered a consolidated registry of all beneficiaries of all social protection programmes. 

But what is a social registry? I am worried that it a classic example of a Catch-22. The idea of a Catch-22 is that it presents an irresolvable paradox created as a result of its own inherent contradictions. The original Catch-22 comes from the eponymous novel by Joseph Heller, written in 1961. The hero is a fighter pilot called Yossarian, whose tent-mate, Orr, wants to stop flying combat missions. The only way to be excused combat missions is to submit an application stating that you are insane. However, if you submit such an application, it proves that you are not insane. So, either way, you have to go on flying combat missions. A practical example of Catch-22 occurs when you lock your keys in your car: you can’t open the car door because you don’t have your keys, and you can’t get your keys because the car door is locked. Another example would be the problem faced by young development practitioners at the start of their career: that they can’t get an overseas assignment without experience; and they can’t gain experience without getting an overseas assignment. Yet another was Groucho Marx’s famous assertion: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”.  

I have read multiple exhaustive manuals and earnest proposals on the subject of social registries, written by luminaries in the field (Leite, Veras, Barca, Chirchir, etc.), on behalf of important organisations in the social protection sector (World Bank, DFID, DFAT, IPC-IG, GIZ, etc.), for a range of stakeholders and governments around the world. 

They all tell you at great length what a social registry will and won’t do, what function it can and cannot serve, to what use it may or may not be put. They tie themselves in knots trying to explain whether a social registry is a database or an information system or a “targeting mechanism” (Jaidi 2020, page 5) or an approach to data integration or “a synecdoche to indicate the broader information system and all its component parts” (Barca & Chirchir 2019, page 12), or even (phew!) “a ‘brand name’ that is defined by the function as an information system that collects, organizes, stores, processes, transforms, creates and distributes information for the predefined purpose of supporting outreach, intake and registration, assessment of needs and conditions, and determination of potential eligibility for social programs” (Leite et al 2017, page 8), by which I presume they mean “it does poverty targeting”. These analyses range from the turgid to the conversant, but most end up being tergiversant because they fail to answer clearly the very simple question: a social registry is an “authoritative list” of what?  

It is here we see the first glimpse of Catch-22 sophistry. Leite et al postulate that “social registries contain information on all registrants” (Leite et al 2017, page 6); and Barca’s definition is that “It is a registry/database of all people and households registered” (Barca 2017, page 12). You see the problem here? Each definition is wonderfully circular, and ultimately totally unhelpful: what such definitions are saying in essence is that “this list is an authoritative list of all the people who are on this list”! Joseph Heller would have been proud! 

Even if we persist, the Catch-22 remains. Probably the best definition otherwise to emerge from the literature is that “Social registries are databases of potential beneficiaries of social assistance” (Barca 2017, page 11). The problem here is that surely everyone is a potential beneficiary of social assistance? So, to have an authoritative list of all potential beneficiaries of social assistance, we would need a national registry of all individuals, not a social registry of only a subset of those individuals. We cannot choose the subset for the social registry unless we have a national registry in the first place. Ergo, we need a national registry in order to have a social registry, so we don’t need a social registry! 

I would therefore support Stephen’s conclusion that we should do away altogether with the sophistry of social registries and concentrate instead on strengthening and integrating the national registries that already exist in many countries, for example in the form of civil registries or national identity systems. If that means keeping them uncomplicated, for reasons of cost, practicality and integrity, and if it encourages a move towards social protection that is based on simple, intuitive life-course indicators (age, employment, disability status, etc.) which can more easily be kept accurate and up-to-date, then so much the better! 

As Yossarian would no doubt have said (if social registries had existed in 1961): social registries are an amazing tool: they just don’t serve any useful purpose. And the purpose they don’t serve, they serve incredibly badly! 

References

Barca, V. (2017). Integrated data and information management for social protection: Social registries and integrated beneficiary registries, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Canberra, Australia.

Chirchir, R. and Barca, V. (2019). Building an integrated and digital social protection information management system, GIZ.

IPC-IG, Étude de Faisabilité pour la Mise en Place d’un Registre Intégré pour la Protection Sociale au Burundi, IPC-IG (forthcoming).

Jaidi, L. (2020). Le Registre social unique : Enjeux et défis. Policy Centre for the New South (PCNS).

Leite, P. G., George, P., George, T. Sun, C., Jones, T. and Lindert, K. A. (2017). Social registries for social assistance and beyond: A guidance note & assessment tool, Social Protection and Labor Discussion Paper 1704, World Bank, Washington, DC.

This blog is written by Nicholas Freeland, an independent consultant in food security, poverty reduction and social protection.

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