Building on existing open source management information systems saves reinventing the digital wheel
When COVID hit The Gambia, the government had to act fast to protect poor households from the financial fallout. A US$10 million emergency cash transfer scheme was rolled out – the largest in the country’s history. The problem was how to manage the scheme efficiently and set up robust information systems in very little time. The solution was openIMIS.
Wearing a mask, Jatta Fadera waits patiently in a socially distanced line that snakes its way round the dusty village compound, waiting to be registered by officials sitting at a table in the shade of a mango tree. They are here to receive 1,500 Dalasi (around 24 Euros) a month from the government’s emergency cash distribution scheme, to help them cope financially during the COVID crisis.
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openIMIS: How a digital tool is transforming social protection around the world
This US$10 million cash transfer scheme known as Nafa-Quick – which means ‘quick benefits’ in the local Wolof language – was the biggest in The Gambia’s history, covering 30% of the population and targeting 83,000 households in 30 of the poorest districts over a four month period last summer.
Using high tech solutions to address age-old problems of poverty
‘I thank my country, I thank my village,’ says a grateful Jatta. During a time of great economic uncertainty as a result of COVID restrictions, it is hardly surprising that Jatta is very happy to receive this extra cash. More surprising perhaps is the high-tech way the scheme was managed and run, and the speed at which it was set up in response to the pandemic.
As Jatta reaches the front of the queue, he hands over his card to the officials, and they scan a barcode to check his details. They ask how many people are in his household and add additional information to his details stored on a hand-held tablet. Then, he collects his money. Before they leave the village at the end of the day, the officials in charge will know exactly who has received money and how much has been handed out. It is all part of the Management Information System (MIS) called openIMIS that is being used for the first time to run complex social protection scheme on this scale.
COVID disrupted The Gambia’s social protection plans
The Government of The Gambia has received US $30 million from international development partners such as the World Bank to implement ‘The Gambia Social Safety Net Project’, which was launched in September 2019 and will run until March 2024. The original aim of this project was ‘to improve the coordination of social assistance activities and increase inclusion of the extreme poor in the Nafa (benefits) programme’.
In the past these benefit programmes tended to be fragmented and poorly managed, so that assistance either didn’t reach the people that needed it most, or ‘leaked’ to the wrong people.
The Social Safety Net Project was originally intended to provide small amounts of income to support the extreme poor in 20 districts over a three year period to help them buy essential food and goods and ultimately lift them out of extreme poverty.
‘Nafa-Quick’ provides quick benefits
When COVID-19 hit last year, however, this broader agenda had to be revised rapidly in response to the immediate crisis, which threatened to plunge the poorest of the poor further into economic misery and hunger.
A new temporary cash transfer scheme was set up, known as Nafa-Quick – literally ‘quick benefits’. It used US$10 million of the original $30 million funding to provide monthly cash payments to households like Jatta’s over a four month period to help them through the pandemic. Around 83,000 households were targeted, and since the average household/ family size is around eight people, that’s a potential reach of around 660,000 people, or around 30% of the entire population of The Gambia.
Not only was Nafa-Quick the largest distribution in The Gambia’s history, it had to be done really fast – within a month. The programme was led by the National Nutrition Agency (NaNA), working alongside the Department of Community Development of the Ministry of Lands and Regional Government and the Department for Social Welfare of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.
‘When COVID came,’ says Modou Phall, NaNA’s Executive Director, ‘we had to pivot from the broader social protection scheme we had originally planned, to respond quickly to the immediate crisis.’
In order to do this on such a massive scale and within a short time frame, NaNA urgently needed a Management Information System (MIS) to help manage the list of beneficiaries, deliver of benefits to them, generate payment lists, and provide rapid, clear and simple reports on these activities. The solution was openIMIS.
In response to growing demand for reliable and cost-effective digital solutions for managing social health protection systems, German Development Cooperation and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) have joined forces to facilitate the creation of an open source management information system – openIMIS – and to foster a global community of users and supporters to maintain it and ensure its quality over time (refer to this article for more details on how openIMIS became a global good.)
openIMIS evolved from a management information system originally funded by Swiss Development Cooperation in 2012 for community health protection schemes in Tanzania and subsequently used in small health insurance schemes in Cameroon in 2013. This MIS was then adopted and adapted for the launch of Nepal’s new national health insurance scheme, with support from German Development Cooperation. Recognising its potential use elsewhere, GDC and SDC then decided to work together to develop an open source management system, openIMIS. The software became an open source technology. As described in this article, currently more than five million people are covered by health insurance schemes run on openIMIS, and interest in openIMIS is growing as its ability to efficiently manage complex information flows becomes better known.
No need to ‘reinvent the wheel’
Although openIMIS was originally designed for managing social health protection schemes, a start-up Gambian software development company 2M Corp, independently came across the open source technology on the internet and spotted its potential in The Gambia.
Yaya Saidou Jallow, the Executive Director 2M Corp and his business partner Momodou Jarju, set up the company two years ago. Given that it is difficult and expensive for The Gambia to recruit the IT specialists it so badly needed, they determined from the outset that wherever possible, the company should use existing open source technology, rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’.
‘You can save time, human resources and money by bringing in something that’s already working elsewhere,’ says Momodou. ‘The client will spend less and they will get the benefits of an open source platform. It’s already doing 80% of what you want. The other 20% you can customise.’
When the tender for the Nafa-Quick programme came up in The Gambia, 2M Corp had just four weeks to come up with a MIS for the registration, enrolment and payment process. Yaya and Momodou found openIMIS on the internet and quickly grasped its potential for use in a social protection schemes as well as the health insurance schemes it was originally designed for. ‘Basically what you have is someone benefitting, someone offering a service and someone paying for the service – so you have three parties,’ says Yaya. ‘In social protection schemes it is very similar also…just the terminology is different.’
Their solution was to adopt and adapt openIMIS. By using an ‘off the peg’ system, 2MCorp were able to build on the modular open source platform and tweak it to NaNA’s needs.
The ‘biggest advantage’ of openIMIS is the technical backup
As part of the Nafa-Quick contract, 2M Corp also had to train staff from NaNA and the payment provider to use the system and provide technical back-up in case of problems. In turn, if Momodou and Yaya needed any advice or help with using the platform themselves, they could call on the openIMIS online service desk hosted by GIZ’s Global Initiative on Social Protection Innovation and Learning. In addition to the dedicated support desk, openIMIS facilitates a forum for a community of users, development partners, implementers, software developers and academic institutions to exchange ideas and information. For more information visit https://wiki.openimis.org. This forum enables users and potential users to ask questions, report problems or request additional features for the software.
‘I think the best thing about openIMIS is that there’s this community of people who, if you’re not sure about any part of it, you can contact them and they will explain how it works,’Yaya Sidu Jalo
Seeing the possibilities for future uses
The four-month emergency cash transfer is now over, but after its success with openIMIS, The Gambia is very keen to continue using it as it reverts to its original social protection plans. ‘We are committed to it and we want to use it,’ says Yaya. ‘We’ve seen what it can do, and we are now working on a modular form where you can run an insurance platform, cash transfers and in-kind transfers and link it all to a social registry’. By ‘social registry’ he means a shared database for the many social protection programmes operating in the country. Establishing such a shared registry should reduce fragmentation and duplication of social protection efforts and enable more efficient use of resources. This has already been tried in Malawi to great effect.
Building a ‘Global Good’ rather than software silos
Saurav Bhattarai, an adviser at GIZ’s Global Initiative for Social Protection Innovation and Learning, is delighted that openIMIS is being used with such success in The Gambia ’s social protection programme. He sees it as a natural progression from using it for health insurance schemes. ‘The pandemic’, he says, ‘has been a catalyst for using open source information technology and openIMIS is an important tool that can help countries in their journey towards both, universal health coverage and universal social protection.’ It should be regarded as a ‘Global Good’ that builds on and shares existing technology and with users working together in a co-creation process and feeding back into the software so that it works for everyone.
‘This concept is the future for any digital tool,’ says Saurav. ‘We really can’t afford to build different software packages to solve the same problems in partner countries. We need to look at how we can all contribute to these Global Goods so that we are building on other people’s efforts, rather than creating software in silos.’
Good at a local level too
As Jatta Fadera collected his monthly money last summer, he probably had little understanding of the concept of a ‘Global Good’ or of the open source technology that made it possible for him to receive this financial help barely a month after COVID hit The Gambia. But with every beep of the barcode on his voucher and every payment received, he would certainly have appreciated that this new system was good for his family, providing a vital financial lifeline in the midst of a global pandemic.
Ruth Evans, March 2021