Icon Our WorkSocial registries: a short history of abject failure

This paper​, written in partnership with Act Church of Sweden, examines the utility of the so-called “social registry” – a database that determines people’s eligibility for welfare programs – within social protection. Our analysis illustrates that it is minimal – unless the aim is to undertake inaccurate poverty targeting. Unfortunately, the use of these registries has extended across the Global South, with their core aim being to select beneficiary households for poverty-targeted social programmes. They go against the whole notion of modern, lifecycle social security schemes based on individual entitlements, as these targeting databases are restricted to low-cost national social protection systems that resemble those of the poor relief of the 19th Century Europe.

There is much evidence to demonstrate that all social registries have failed to achieve their main aim of accurately identifying the beneficiaries of social programmes. Social registries generate very high levels of targeting and exclusion errors in the social programmes that use them. They systematically exclude a large proportion of the poorest members of society from multiple schemes, consequently causing significant harm. They use the same targeting methodology across a wide range of social programmes, increasing the number of those affected by their arbitrary procedures.

One major cause of the inaccuracy of social registries is their assumption of unchanging households; the data is rarely updated for many years as they assume a static world in which households never, or hardly ever, change. Additionally, the high design errors when proxy means tests are used, poor quality of social registry surveys and the falsification of information by respondents are other sources of their failures. The COVID-19 crisis has effectively destroyed the utility of all social registries since, all around the world, relative household wellbeing has changed dramatically since early 2020. As a result, information collected by social registries before the pandemic is now essentially worthless.

The paper argues that, instead of wasting large sums of money on social registries, countries could use the funds on much better and more useful alternatives such as building Single Registries or providing identity, through birth certificates and identity cards, to all members of society. Single Registries would allow governments to monitor their national social protection systems more effectively.

If governments truly wish to transform their societies and support national recovery from COVID-19, the paper argues that they need to realise that social registries will only hinder them from achieving this. Instead, they should focus on building comprehensive systems of universal social security, alongside other universal public services, such as health and education. Ultimately, social registries have no role to play in modern, social security systems.

Read the paper here.

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