Harnessing the potential for innovation: Strengthening the digital backbone of social protection systems
Data and information systems underpin the social protection delivery chain from registration and enrolment, through payments, to provision of data for decision making and policy development. Digital social protection systems can support more efficient and effective social protection by automating and improving data management, providing convenient, flexible and more secure services to recipients. Through facilitating information exchange between government agencies and institutions, as well as across sectors, digital systems – and the infrastructure on which they rest – also provide the space for adaptation and innovation.
This was the subject of a plenary session on social protection data and information systems – the second ‘building block’ of adaptive social protection – on day two of the Global Forum on Adaptive Social Protection, organised by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the World Bank.
Rodrigo Assumpção, CEO of DataPrev, Brazil’s Social Security Information and Technology Enterprise, set the scene for the panel discussion to follow. He presented his principal lessons drawn from a long career as a systems specialist, illustrating them via a rapid journey through DataPrev’s experiences in developing Brazil’s digital social protection systems.
Data and technology are strategic public assets which belong to everyone
Taking a broad perspective, Rodrigo Assumpção pointed out that data and information systems are ‘the 21st century infrastructure’ and ‘a fundamental strategic asset belonging to society as a whole’. His overarching message was that ICT and data have become too important to be left in the hands of ICT people; governments must develop capacities to harness the huge potential which data and technology offer in order to make informed and evidence-based decisions, and to develop more efficient and effective social protection service delivery. Without this, costs will rise and results will inevitably fall. The solution, he said, lies in governance and management processes.
Harnessing the potential of ICT is crucial because, if you don’t have service delivery – and ICT is now the main element of service delivery – you will not be able to sustain the comprehensive social protection policies or use and sustain the financing. Efficient governance and managed processes will allow you to increase your capacity, your efficiency and your effectiveness.Rodrigo Assumpção
Developing the requisite governance and management systems is not a quick fix but a journey that may take decades. Along the way – and this is particularly relevant for low- and lower-middle income countries – social protection programmes need to invest in communications infrastructure and to develop human capacities. Many of the important points from Rodrigo Assumpção’s presentation were then taken up and discussed from different perspectives during the discussions that followed.
The moderator Tina George, Senior Social Protection Specialist at the World Bank, introduced the panel, highlighting the importance of human-centred development, as an essential complement to technology and data, for scaling up social safety nets in times of expanding crises.
Tina George then welcomed the panel to the stage. Naveed Akbar, Director General of Pakistan’s Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), was joined by the Director General of Togo’s Agence Nationale d’Identification, Silété Devo, and Dr Axel Klaphake, Director Economic and Social Development, Digitalisation, at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).
The role of digital platforms in building shock-resistant social protection systems
Silété Devo described his government’s efforts to identify and provide support to those in need of financial assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying ‘we knew very early on that we needed digital infrastructure in order to coordinate our response’. The government mobilised rapidly to set up the digital Novissi platform from scratch (Novissi means ‘solidarity’ in the local Ewe language). Through this platform they provided contactless emergency cash transfers to families affected by the pandemic, targeting people in the informal sector, many of them women. Over half a million individuals living in and around Togo’s capital, Lomé and other urban areas, received cash transfers through mobile money in a period of just 15 days.
Since the pandemic, with technical and financial support from the World Bank through its West Africa Unique Identification for Regional Integration and Inclusion (WURI) project and other development partners, the government has continued to develop the Novissi platform. As Silété said, ‘we are learning on the go and we share our experience’.
In Togo today, we have decided to establish a biometric ID centre, which will include a registry with the socio-economic details of people and households, and a unified or a single payments system in order to be agile and to cope with all kinds of shocks. We said 10 years ago that building a road is development. To ensure development today, we need numeric or digital routes and highways.Silété Devo
Countries such as Togo and Pakistan can feed into global initiatives such as the Digital Convergence Initiative (DCI) for developing digital platforms, explained Dr Axel Klaphake and enable other countries to learn. The DCI is an open, virtual community working to build consensus around global standards for interoperability, ensuring data flow between data sources and crucially supporting harmonisation of different systems. A lack of harmonisation and interoperability between social protection programmes not only impacts on social protection outcomes, but also leads to wasted public expenditure.
An enabling environment for digital social protection platforms
A social registry, a digital ID and a payments system – core components of a digital social protection platform – are not sufficient in themselves, pointed out Naveed Akbar. They require a robust enabling environment for their development and efficient implementation, starting with strong political support. He said, ‘I simply cannot over-emphasise the importance of political will at the highest level for digital systems development’.
Legal and regulatory frameworks for data protection and security are essential for generating trust in the system, so that citizens can be confident that their data will not be lost or shared. Endorsing Rodrigo Assumpção’s earlier comments, Naveed Akbar also emphasised the need to develop capacities at all levels (national, sub-national and local) for data collection, management, use and analysis, not only in the public sector but also for the private sector, NGOs and civil society. Building digital literacy among citizens is equally important.
Last on Naveed Akbar’s list were the need for a single entity to have responsibility for managing the data, and to foster collaboration and coordination among the different social protection stakeholders for regular data and information exchange.
These are really the key drivers you need to have an integrated data platform. This also gives you a much broader perspective on what is happening in terms of the implementation of social protection programmes across the country.Naveed Akbar
Integrated digital systems bring opportunities for innovation at low cost
When the pandemic arrived in 2020, Pakistan and Togo – like many other countries – found that the data in the registries required for targeting the cash transfers were incomplete and many poor households were missing. Silété Devo described Togo’s experience of combining novel, low-cost data sources.
Recognising that the most vulnerable people, including many women and those living in hard-to-reach rural areas, are under-represented in official databases, the government made a strategic choice to build on top the existing electoral registry, using data from high resolution satellite images, combined with call data from mobile phone operators. Poverty markers, such as population density, presence of flooding, and the amount and quality of cropland, were used to identify areas of likely deprivation, and these data were then combined with the mobile call data to identify the poorest 100 cantons. Machine learning (AI) was then used to predict consumption levels, and those people estimated to be living on less than US$1.25 per day in the poorest cantons were prioritised for financial assistance.
Prioritising investments in digital social protection in times of crisis
Naveed Akbar described how, in response to the pandemic in 2020, and later the floods of 2022, BISP undertook a process of moving from door-to-door data collection – both expensive and time-consuming – to on-demand registration at BISP centres. In May 2020, the government quickly realised that some of the data in the National Socio-Economic Registry were more than eight years old. A cost-benefit analysis informed a three year journey to digitise, update and enlarge the registry. By the end of 2022, 35 million households had been added and BISP had begun to open registration centres in every tehsil or subdistrict in the country.
It cost US$50m in 2011 to survey households, US$100m to update the register in 2022, and by 2026 this would probably have cost US$150m. We cannot afford this and the government asks, “Why is it so expensive?” Our solution was to establish the BISP centres. The cost of managing these centres over four years will probably be less than US$50m so in the long-run we will really reduce costs.Naveed Akbar
The introduction of an Application Programme Interface (API)-based system – i.e., an interface which enables programmes to safely exchange data – means that BISP data can now be shared with more than 60 different organisations at federal and provincial levels, contributing to evidence-based social policy.
International standards and guidelines provide countries with practical guidance
Axel Klaphake drew attention to the Principles for Digital Development, which are a set of nine principles that distil learnings from countries and systems specialists around the world to help practitioners apply digital technologies in the best way, paying attention to data privacy and protection, inclusiveness, accessibility and fairness:
The Principles for Digital Development are now supported by 280 international organisations, including GIZ. For me, they are an up-to-standard, very pertinent set of principles that help us to guide our operations in a modern, and very human-centred way.Axel Klaphake
And as Dr Axel Klaphake also pointed out, global guidelines and principles promote the use of open source software that is free to use and which is constantly updated through a global community of practice. One such example is openIMIS, which supports the administration of health financing and social protection schemes in seven countries, reaching more than 10 million people. OpenIMIS was developed with support from BMZ and the Swiss Development Corporation, and is currently being merged with the World Bank’s digital platform CORE-MIS.
Using digital social protection to build human capital
Tina George asked the panellists to describe how their respective social protection systems promote digital inclusion and build human capital. As part of Togo’s social new safety net, which aims to cover all of the country’s poorest households, Silété Devo described the government’s ‘digital package’, which includes a digital literacy campaign and provision of mobile phones. The government is also tackling long-held traditional and cultural beliefs which prohibit women from being outside the home. A national network of fibre optic cables will take electricity to remote rural areas, bringing radio and light and much more. Silété Devo said ‘we are convinced that connectivity is crucial – yes, this is social protection but it also goes beyond this. We are investing in human capital’.
In Pakistan, BISP designed and structured the cash transfers so as to challenge entrenched gender norms. Only women can receive the unconditional cash transfers for their households, and conditional cash transfers are higher for girls’ health and education than for boys. A particular challenge in the early days was that 80% of women in the bottom two wealth quintiles did not possess a digital ID, which was a pre-requisite for receiving cash. BISP persevered in the face of opposition and today 9 million women receive regular cash transfers, mostly via mobile phone. Legal and regulatory frameworks are being developed in Pakistan that will ensure data privacy because, as Naveed Akbar stated, ‘the bottom wealth quintiles cannot fight for their rights. For this, we need robust policies for protecting the data and information’.
Harnessing the power of data and ICT requires a continuous balancing act
Rodrigo Assumpção pointed out earlier in the plenary that ‘data privacy must be balanced with the right to be recognised by public policy’. Social registries, by their very design, are not built for privacy, but function best with up-to-date comprehensive and accurate data. Naveed Akbar reinforced this point, explaining that adaptive social protection systems in particular, require data on all citizens because climate shocks do not affect only those who are poor, as was demonstrated during the recent floods in Pakistan.
Digital social protection, Rodrigo Assumpção continued, requires ‘a constant balancing act of conflicting choices and trade-offs,’ whether one is talking about stability versus flexibility, open source versus licensed software, contracting cloud-based storage solutions versus owning data centres, security versus interoperability, or outsourcing versus in-house development’. These decisions will always be present and, by building local capacities for using data and digital tools, digital social protection systems can be developed which suit each different context.