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Tying the Digital Knots

Digital Knots participants

A conference on digital technologies and the road to universal social protection

Social protection programmes are often planned and implemented in isolation, failing to unlock the potential inherent to a harmonised and shock-responsive social protection system. Integrated information management can help to move beyond the current fragmentation, enabling a systematic approach to universal social protection – a goal which the international community is firmly committed to achieving. Digitalisation can help tie the knots – through better analytics, improved service delivery, and more efficient and transparent administrative processes. But what is required to tie these knots and to move beyond mere digitalisation to a truly integrated system? What political, technical and financial challenges need to be overcome? How is data privacy guaranteed?

These questions were at the heart of a conference held on September 14, 2018, at the University Club in Bonn, co-hosted by GIZ, on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ); the UK Department for International Development (DFID); and Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences. Approximately 130 people from 30 countries took part, drawn from a wide range of international organisations, development agencies, government institutions, non-governmental organisations and consulting companies.

Iris Groß, the Vice-President for Teaching and Studying at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, opened the conference. ‘It is wonderful to see you coming from so many countries,’ she said, welcoming the attendees to Bonn. ‘One of the positive opportunities of digitisation is that we can share our software, our ideas and our digital solutions with one another.’ In his opening comments Andreas Proksch, the Director General of GIZ’s Sector and Global Programmes Department, noted that it is a crucial year for the universal social protection movement. There is a strong international commitment to ensuring that all those who need protection when exposed to risk have equitable access to schemes. ‘When it comes to social protection, no one size fits all,’ he said. ‘Not everyone needs to receive the same benefit to be fully protected. This is why we need a systematic approach, to match efficiently existing demands with supply offered by different actors.’

In a pre-recorded video message, Richard Clarke, DFID’s Director General of Policy, Research and Humanitarian, affirmed DFID’s commitment to tackling extreme poverty and reducing inequality, and its belief that social protection is fundamental for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. ‘We are really keen to hear from others and to collaborate on how digital technologies can best be used in delivering more effective social protection for all,’ he said. ‘We see this conference as the start of this really important conversation.’ In his remarks, Alistair Ager, DFID’s Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor, noted the importance of integration for fostering inclusion and improving coverage for vulnerable groups. ‘We can’t transform poverty with a fragmented understanding of who is excluded and why,’ he said. ‘Integration helps us build a more complete picture of vulnerabilities, opening up opportunities for people not just to access social protection, but to use their rights as citizens.’

What is integrated information management and what does it look like?

Moderated by Emily Henderson of DFID, the first session of the conference introduced the key concepts of integrated information management and explored how digital solutions can improve social protection services. The session began with a short video which described the challenges of fragmentation and duplication which integrated information systems are intended to address and set out the vision of a more efficient, harmonised way of providing social protection services.

A conceptual framework

Richard Chirchir
Richard Chirchir

Richard Chirchir, a senior MIS specialist with Development Pathways, then outlined the conceptual basis for an integrated information management system. He underscored how linkages between the Management Information Systems (MIS) of individual social protection programmes can bring about significant efficiency gains while also enabling governments to monitor national social protection systems more effectively. Information collected on eligible applicants (‘social registries’) and beneficiaries (‘integrated beneficiary registries’) that is shared between programmes and governments can build a comprehensive picture of the national profile of beneficiaries (and other applicants), as well as the performance of schemes and the national social protection system. Such registries can be linked to multiple individual social protection scheme MIS through special technology tools (web services), enabling better coordination and the transparent administration of social protection systems. The requirements for putting such integrated information systems in place include legislative and institutional frameworks, national social protection policies and strategies, governance systems, budgets, foundational civil registration system, operational capacity, hardware and software infrastructure, and operational guidelines.

Malawi’s Unified Beneficiary Registry

Suzgo Luhanga-Chuwa
Suzgo Luhanga-Chuwa

Following directly on Richard Chirchir’s presentation, Suzgo Luhanga-Tchuwa, Chief Economist at the Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development in Malawi, provided a country case study of an integrated beneficiary registry. Malawi’s Unified Beneficiary Registry (UBR) was established to reduce fragmentation and inefficiencies inherent in the overlapping systems which were previously used to identify and provide support and protection to poor households. Through a multi-stakeholder process led by the Ministry, coordination structures and data collection tools were harmonised: a national UBR unit is now responsible for overseeing data collection, while committees at the district level supervise extension workers who visit villages and systematically capture data about the poorest households in a standardised format. The resulting social registry can be used by programme implementers, including humanitarian agencies, to identify families in need according to their specific criteria. The implementers, in turn, feed information back into the UBR about which households have been reached with which benefits. One of the key features of Malawi’s experience, according to Luhanga-Tchuwa, is that it has been ‘home grown.’ UBR is a government-owned initiative, but it is the result of painstaking collaboration: a multidisciplinary team of experts worked alongside the Malawian government to realise its vision, and both human and institutional capacity is being built to sustain the UBR’s operations.


Members of the audience wasted no time peppering the presenters with practical questions: How is Malawi’s UBR updated? Are social registries only for the poor? What does it take to get diverse stakeholders behind an initiative like this?

Richard Chirchir conceded that updating registries is one of the major challenges, and that experiments in ‘dynamic updating’ are happening in countries around the world to obviate the need to comprehensively re-collect data every four to five years. He underscored the importance of mechanisms such as MOUs to ensure that data that flow ‘out’ of social registries flow ‘back’ in the form of updates from programmes and institutions which use the registries to target benefits.
He also clarified that social registries and integrated beneficiary registries are just one form of integrated information systems. In many middle- and high-income countries social protection is offered across the life cycle. Chirchir observed that the ultimate aim is to move beyond social registries and integrated beneficiary registries to broader systems that can benefit the entire government ecosystem.

In terms of overcoming fragmentation, Suzgo Luhanga-Tchuwa conceded that the path to UBR in Malawi was not as straightforward as it might now appear. Her advice? In a word: persistence. ‘If you have a vision and that vision is shared by key stakeholders, you have to hold a lot of meetings and be sure that everyone is involved. As soon as you leave someone out, you’ll encounter resistance.’ She noted that not everyone accepted the idea of a UBR at first, but the government was clear about that need and continued to explain why it was important. As the idea gained momentum, all the key players eventually came on board.

Technology frontiers: Newest applications and their use for integrated information management

Stefanie Ruff
Stefanie Ruff

The second session of the day, moderated by Stefanie Ruff of the BMZ’s Division Health, Population Policy and Social Protection, focused on key innovations in digital social protection. In her introduction, Ruff highlighted the relevance and potential of integrated information management for the realisation of universal social protection – an international commitment, supported by the German government, to ensuring income security and support to all people across the life cycle.

During this session conference attendees had the chance to stretch their legs as they were taken in small groups on a guided tour: at each of four ‘stations’ located across the conference venue they listened to rapid-fire presentations about cutting edge applications of technology in the field of social protection. The presenter at each station had 15 minutes to pitch the purpose and application of a particular integrated information system.

openIMIS: An open source solution for social insurance

Dr Madan Kuman Upadhyaya, the Executive Director of the Health Insurance Board of Nepal, and Saurav Bhattarai, the Deputy Chief Technical Adviser of GIZ’s Support to the Health Sector Programme in Nepal, introduced openIMIS, a fully customisable open source software designed to support the management of social health protection schemes. Based upon the insurance software IMIS, which was developed in Tanzania in 2012 with support from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, openIMIS offers a simple and user friendly way to manage core insurance processes, including enrollment, verification, claims submission and review, payment advice and feedback. Since its transformation into an open source ‘global good’ in 2016, with German and Swiss support, openIMIS is now freely available to download and use; a community of practice and users is beginning to take shape. In terms of integrated information management for social protection, one advantage of openIMIS is that beneficiary data is regularly updated, i.e. when beneficiaries renew their coverage annually or when they visit health facilities. More than 870,000 people in Nepal are currently in the openIMIS registry.

Integrated information management in India’s MGNREGA rural public works programme

Rajeev Ahal
Rajeev Ahal

Rajeev Ahal, Director for Natural Resource Management with GIZ India, explained how digitalisation has enabled the world’s largest rural wage work social protection programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), to generate economic and ecological benefits, as well as synergies between them. Established by Parliament in 2005 in response to persistent cycles of drought which undermine livelihoods in rural areas, MGNREGA entitles anyone in rural India to 100 days of wage work within five kilometers of where they live. Last year 76 million people took part in the scheme. More than half of the works projects focus on natural resource management, and 96 percent wages are paid through digitised direct beneficiary transfer mechanisms. With German support, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology is now being used to improve the quality of local planning processes by integrating and digitally managing spatial and geographic data and making these accessible to people at panchayat (village) level. This allows them to identify environmentally-effective work projects in areas where data indicate that there is sufficient demand for a public works project. Twenty-six GIS laboratories have been established and a massive open online course trains people to work with watershed, land use, draining and soil erosion maps to develop local action plans for natural resource management.

Linking machine learning and forecast-based financing

Pablo Suarez, the Associate Director for Research and Innovation with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, showed how machine learning and forecast-based financing can be brought together to mitigate the damage caused by disasters such as flooding, using the Nangbéto Hydropower Dam in Togo as an example. A digital tool called FUNES now collects observations such as rainfall and river level, reservoir level and operational plans at the dam to estimate river flow and flood risk downstream. When the risk of flooding exceeds a pre-defined point, the FUNES system sends an automated message to government, the Red Cross and other stakeholders to initiate pre-determined, pre-funded preparedness measures, including the distribution of water purification kits and construction of temporary shelters. In September 2016 when an overspill occurred at the dam, communities downstream were affected but prepared. FUNES represents a completely new approach to combining human and computer capabilities to understand what is happening and to anticipate what may be coming.

The potentials and risks of blockchain technology

Kate Dodgson
Kate Dodgson

Kate Dodgson, a consultant with HumanityX, advises charities, NGOs, government institutions and social entreprises on whether and how blockchain could benefit them. Acknowledging that this new technology is not yet widely understood, she presented the key features of blockchain to conference attendees in ‘plain English’ and explained how these enhance the transparency, accuracy and speed of transactions. She then provided some examples of how blockchain technology is already being used in the field of social assistance (e.g. World Food Programme’s Building Blocks, ‘tokenisation’ for those without access to banks, welfare payments) and to enable the use of ‘smart contracts’ (self-executing contracts with terms written into lines of code). While noting the revolutionary potentials of blockchain technology, Dodgson also urged those in the field of social protection to proceed with caution with respect to issues such as the recording of personally identifiable information, prospects for long-term funding and the legal and regulatory framework. A decision tree which Dodgson created can be used by organisations wondering whether blockchain is a suitable solution for their needs.

Implementing digital social protection: Challenges at national and international level

After lunch the conference participants re-gathered for an afternoon session, moderated by Esther Schüring of Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences. The focus here was on the ‘nuts and bolts’ – both politically and technically – of establishing and managing integrated information management systems. The first part of the session focused on implementation challenges at the national level, while the second part looked at issues of international coordination. In a final panel discussion the key themes of the day were distilled with an eye towards the future.

Implementing integrated information management systems

In her presentation Valentina Barca, a senior consultant with Oxford Policy Management, showed how myriad variations in the design and implementation of integrated data systems shape the extent to which the objectives of data integration are actually reached. ‘The opportunities are many,’ she said, but realising these depends on ‘how the system is set up, where data is flowing to and from, how it is being collected, stored, managed and shared.’ Shifting from fragmented programme systems to higher levels of integration requires specific capacities at the individual, organisational and institutional levels. Barca noted the importance, at the central level, of actors whom she described as ‘hybrid figures’: good at strategy and management, familiar with the context and sectoral needs, and at the same time conversant with the latest developments in information technology. At the same time, even the best-designed system will struggle to run smoothly if the people involved in the ‘last mile of service delivery’ lack the requisite resources or skills to work with the system, or don’t embrace its purpose. ‘Countries that are further along on this journey focus on this a lot,’ said Barca. ‘Integrated information management is not a system of control, but of support.’

The potential of social protection systems as integrated platforms

Philippe Leite

Philippe Leite, Senior Social Protection Economist at the World Bank, approached the topic from a different angle, speaking not about technology, but about the potential of social protection systems as integrated platforms that can help connect people to benefits and services beyond social protection, in areas such as health, training and education. He compared how different countries have approached the creation of social registries as inclusion systems, drawing attention to two main features: the extent to which the registries serve as integrated gateways to multiple programmes and the extent to which they are ‘dynamic gateways’ for inclusion, i.e. people can register with them at any time.

In Chile, the adoption of a national strategy in 2003 led to increased coordination across sectors and eventually to inter-institutional agreements for information sharing. From a National Beneficiary Registry with 211,000 registrants in 2003, Chile now has one of the world’s leading integrated social information systems with 12.3 million registrants and 70% population coverage. In Brazil, the tipping point was the decision, in 2005, to make existing social registries dynamic. By working directly with municipalities to create physical points at which people can register or update their information, the number of people in Brazil’s national social registry has risen from 30 million in 2005 to 80 million today. ‘There is no blueprint here,’ said Leite. ‘The main question is what we’re trying to achieve with the social registry in the first place.’ He underscored the importance of building on progress; moving slowly, but steadily, with an eye on the capacity of key institutions to process changes; and making sustainable choices rather than ‘dazzling’ with technology.

Identity underpins everything

Syed Mohsin Rizvi

Data privacy and biometrics was the subject of a presentation by Paul Makin, an independent consultant specialising in financial inclusion and digital identity. Makin’s starting point is that ‘identity underpins everything’ when it comes to social protection systems. However in many contexts where foundational documents, such as birth certificates, are not available, it is necessary – and also possible – to come up with alternative approaches which work for the user and provide them with something akin to a real identity. Biometrics are one such approach, but, according to Makin, are ‘really hard to do well and easy to do badly.’ He noted that the trend towards storing biometrics in centralised databases gives rise to data security and privacy concerns and advocated solutions which allow data to be kept under beneficiaries’ control – either locally or remotely, with the ‘keys’ residing with the beneficiary. While blockchain offers huge potential, key questions need to be answered: Who holds the keys? And is the beneficiary really in control?

A country-level perspective on the potential of biometrics came from Pakistan, which has built one of the largest biometric databases in the world. Syed Mohsin Rizvi, the head of the Project Management Unit at Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NDRA), explained how the establishment of 550 centers across the country has made it possible to register 95% of Pakistan’s citizens. The resulting database contains fingerprints and photographs of 92% of the population. ‘Nearly a billion biometric transactions have been carried out through this system,’ Rizvi said. ‘It provides instant verification for social protection programs, health insurance, poverty alleviation programmes, bank accounts and electoral rolls.’

Coordination at international level

Moving to the international level, Carl Leitner, the acting director of Digital Square, presented some of the main lessons which have been learned from efforts to coordinate proliferating digital health interventions in recent years. Recognising the challenges posed by overlapping, fragmented e-health systems, major players including the World Health Organization came together to push for the interoperability of digital technologies for health. One major outcome has been the nine principles for digital development which guide governments, development partners and implementing partners on their responsibilities when supporting technology-enabled programmes. A set of ‘digital investment principles’ will soon follow. A growing digital health community is also backing the development of global goods – digital solutions, such as open source software or other resources under open license – that can be adapted across multiple countries to meet their specific needs. The OpenHIE community of practice facilitates these various global goods to work interoperably with one another by supporting the development of large-scale health information sharing architectures with common standards.

Towards a roadmap: Maximising opportunities and addressing challenges

In the final event of the day, representatives of DFID, the World Bank and GIZ reflected upon the day’s contributions and looked to the future.

DFID ready to use ‘building blocks’ to construct something new

Alistair Ager began by noting that DFID’s interest in the area of integrated social protection systems is not technology-led, but development challenge-led. Given the sheer inefficiency of existing fragmented systems, ‘pounds and euros couldn’t be better spent,’ said Ager. ‘This is about protecting the world’s most vulnerable and leaving no one behind.’ Social protection is difficult, he said, but there are decades of experience to draw upon: ‘We have to learn from the history of development and then think about how technology can play a role.’ Having said this, he acknowledged that technology can change the way we think about long-standing problems, as the presentation about machine learning and forecast-based financing in Togo made clear. ‘The discussions today made me think about potentials for alternative sources of data.’

Looking to the future, Ager spoke positively about the idea of building blocks. ‘I’ve been blown away by the concreteness and by the evidence of promising practice displayed by the examples presented today,’ he said. ‘There are clearly already lots of “blocks” to work with. The task now is to assemble these together into something that creates protection.’ For its part DFID is particularly interested in the analytics and evidence that helps in the construction process: ‘We don’t want to go through decades of parallel experimentation, the way e-health did. DFID is committed to thinking through with others what can be built on and needs to be connected.’

World Bank wants to use technological advances to leave no one behind

Ralf Radermacher, Esther Schüring, Anush Bezhanyan and Alastair Ager
Ralf Radermacher, Esther Schüring, Anush Bezhanyan and Alastair Ager

Anush Bezhanyan, a Practice Manager for Strategy, Operations, Knowledge, Learning and Partnerships in Social Protection at the World Bank, described some of the efforts that have been made since the G20 summit in 2012 to improve the coordination of social protection at the international level. One major area of focus which the World Bank has supported is the creation of a repository of processes and systems, such as those available at, so that governments seeking to expand their social protection systems can leapfrog ahead and not reinvent the wheel. Despite achievements in recent years, however, Bezhanyan acknowledged that there is still a long way to go, particularly in low-income countries. ‘Only 50% of people globally currently have access to social protection,’ she said. ‘We’re not going to make any big progress or breakthroughs if we don’t find ways to reach that other 50%. The question is how we can use technological advances to do this.’ One concrete way that the World Bank is tackling this challenge is in the area of foundational IDs: it has just approved a multi-country project on foundational IDs in West Africa which will provide people in five countries with foundational IDs that can be used to bring them into social protection systems.

German Development Cooperation committed to coordinating efforts with other players

Ralf Radermacher, the head of the GIZ Sector Initiative on Social Protection, observed that the discussions at the conference were useful in generating a ‘common understanding of what we’re shooting at,’ as well as some of the challenges which need to be tackled. ‘I hope one of the outcomes is that we can move towards a broad agreement among the partners involved – along the lines of the digital principles – of aspects we need to be mindful of,’ he said. ‘Not everyone is an expert on data security or privacy, but if you have something in hand that gives you guidance, you at least have some orientation.’ Now that the debate on conceptual clarity has kicked off, different people can take different parts forward, he added.

Radermacher noted that capacity is an area that will need to be looked at strategically. ‘We may need to think about the creation of global goods on some key elements,’ he said. ‘If you have certain recurring requirements, why do it lots of times?’ The experience from the health sector has shown that capacity in-country can be effectively complemented by a global user community which provides remote support. ‘We’re learning this firsthand with the openIMIS Initiative,’ he continued, welcoming other partners to come on board. ‘The more hands the merrier.’ Radermacher concluded by reaffirming that both GIZ and BMZ welcome the chance to coordinate their efforts with other players. ‘It worked very well with this conference, having DFID as a co-host and the World Bank deeply involved in discussions beforehand. Let’s make it a good practice.’

Picking up on this point, Alastair Ager commented that ‘bringing things together is not an apolitical process, it’s a process of negotiation.’ He reconfirmed DFID’s intention to work closely with GIZ, the World Bank and others, both technically and politically, to advance global public goods in the area of digital social protection. ‘If the building blocks we’ve discussed today are being used to construct something valuable, we’d be delighted to hold a follow-up meeting.’

Karen Birdsall and Anna von Roenne

September 2018

Further information

© H-BRS/GIZ, Barbara Frommann
© H-BRS/GIZ, Barbara Frommann
© H-BRS/GIZ, Barbara Frommann
© H-BRS/GIZ, Barbara Frommann
© H-BRS/GIZ, Barbara Frommann
© H-BRS/GIZ, Barbara Frommann
© H-BRS/GIZ, Barbara Frommann
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