Written by Rim Antoun and João Pedro Bregolin Dytz, socialprotection.org.


The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed governments around the world to quickly mobilize resources and invest in developing social protection programmes, in parallel with public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus. These efforts aimed at expanding coverage, better and quickly identifying beneficiaries, and delivering programmes efficiently while maintaining social distancing and barriers.

This blog’s main goal is to investigate digital solutions during the pandemic, and the usage of digital tools in the multiple steps for the delivery of social protection programmes – e.g. outreach and registration, enrolment, and benefit delivery, among others (Burattini et al, 2022). Some examples of these solutions are, for instance, digital social and beneficiary records, online platforms to apply for the benefit, mobile money and direct transfers to beneficiaries’ accounts (IPC-IG, 2021).

Within this context, this blog discusses the potential of digitalisation to improve social protection performance, as well as the risks and issues to avoid, supported by some in-depth case studies.


Advantages and disadvantages of digitalisation to social protection programmes

The digitalisation of social protection responses can enhance the agility and efficiency of programme delivery and enable beneficiary groups to access their right to social protection. Thus, it can help improve the various steps of social protection programme implementation – identifying beneficiaries, delivering benefits, paying, managing accounts, etc. (Gelb et al., 2022).

In some instances, it might improve data accuracy, quality, transparency, and facilitate the monitoring of programmes. When properly developed, digital solutions might promote awareness of social protection schemes and include access to several benefits and services in a more coordinated manner through communication strategies and proper outreach (Burattini et al, 2022).

However, in more vulnerable contexts, governments seeking to use digital tools need to adapt social protection programmes to the needs and realities of the most vulnerable groups. Digital tools may create new forms of inequality and deepen exclusion among vulnerable groups that might live in areas where basic infrastructure (such as electricity) is absent, and in which ID ownership can be low. These vulnerable groups might already suffer from low levels of digital and alphabetical literacy, lack of access to mobile phones, internet and lack of trust and motivation to use these tools, which effectively exclude them from programmes when alternative solutions are not offered (Gronbach, 2022).

Furthermore, there are significant gaps in the datasets and databases available to governments for multiple reasons, which are not always visible to policymakers (Giest et al., 2022). Asymmetries in the existing data for the government can therefore have effects on how the programmes and policies are developed, which means solutions require governments to build public service capacity by dealing with this data (Giest et al., 2022).


Digital responses to the pandemic and adherence to strong principles

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to use digital tools was apparent: avoiding crowds and gatherings of people, ensuring the respect of lockdown measures were a priority of governments and digitalisation of the responses made sense in order to provide benefits that would replace the loss of income of households (Gelb et al., 2022).

The Social Protection Responses to COVID-19: Online Dashboard, developed by the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) and partners, provides data on the application and enrolment processes of the responses by type of mechanism, as seen in figure 1 (IPC-IG, 2021). Digital means, such as web portals or email registration, were the main enrolment mechanisms (232 responses used these), and mobile platforms were quite common (48 responses). Many social protection responses did not require any form of action from beneficiaries for registration, using existing information to process their enrolment (130 programmes), often based on existing digital tools such as registries or beneficiary databases. Manual registration was therefore limited, and in many cases worked as an alternative for some households or individuals that had more limited access to digital resources.

Figure 1 - Application and enrolment by type of mechanism

Source: IPC-IG, 2021. Notes: A single measure can use multiple mechanisms. Data is only available for coverage expansions (horizontal expansions or new programmes) and do not include subsidies. 

Regarding another key implementation step during which crowding should be avoided, payment of cash benefits was often also digitalised, as can be seen in figure 2. In most cases (216 responses), direct bank transfers to beneficiaries were adopted, which do not necessarily require that beneficiaries travel a distance to receive the benefits. Even more linked to digital tools, the usage of mobile money (Gronbach, 2022) was the second most adopted type of payment (71 responses), and e-vouchers or payment cards were another digital tool used by governments during the COVID-19 pandemic (IPC-IG, 2021).

Figure 2 - For cash-based measures: benefit payment/delivery by type of mechanism

Source: IPC-IG, 2021. Notes: A single measure can use multiple mechanisms. Data is only available for coverage expansions (horizontal expansions or new programmes) and do not include subsidies

It is necessary to highlight that most of the programmes aimed at benefitting vulnerable households, and often the most vulnerable households in the country. Therefore, these responses and their digital tools had to be accessible and adapted to poor and vulnerable households, whose access to digital instruments is often relatively lower. To ensure timely and reliable benefits, some important principles need to be kept in mind when using digital tools (Wodsak et al., 2022). Aiming at a better usage of digital tools, nine principles for digital development were defined by the Digital Impact Alliance in 2014 and has since been by a large number of NGOs, UN agencies, development partners and other actors (Wodsak et al., 2022). Some of these principles are:

  • Designing with the user, by understanding the beneficiaries and their needs, in particular, those who are excluded;
  • Designing for scale, understanding the whole ecosystem of work and adapting to different contexts;
  • Building for sustainability, by ensuring that adopted solutions last over time;
  • Usage of open standards, open data, open-source tools and open innovation, to increase collaboration in their development;
  • Address privacy and security principles, to enhance the confidentiality of the private information of beneficiaries.


Country examples

Some countries had a particularly strong investment in integrating digital tools and in digitalising many of the processes throughout the implementation of their social protection responses to COVID-19. Some interesting examples elaborated here are Jordan, Togo, and Cambodia’s emergency cash transfer programmes (for more details on all programmes here, see Burrattini et al., 2022).

Jordan: Takaful 2 and Takaful 3

The Jordanian government launched the “Daily Wage Worker Assistance Programme”, also known as Takaful 2, an emergency cash transfer implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. It derived from the Takaful routine programme and used a variety of digital tools to provide emergency cash transfers targeting poor and vulnerable households affected by the pandemic. Due to the data available from Takaful, Takaful 2 was able to rapidly expand coverage, adding more than 246,000 households to the 55,000 already covered by Takaful (NAF, 2020). In 2021, Takaful 3 built upon this experience, with a reduced list of beneficiaries to continue providing support to informal workers and daily wage workers (IPC-IG, 2021).

To provide a quick expansion (in around a month) to the list of beneficiaries of the programmes, Takaful 2 used the Takaful database as well as the National Unified Registry, which includes an electronic database and MIS, supported by registration through virtual forms, all of which greatly sped up the identification of households who were considered eligible for emergency relief.

Takaful 2 also pushed to improve digitalisation, in particular in the crucial areas of registration, enrolment and benefit delivery: applications for the benefit and confirmation of the living conditions were done remotely. Regarding benefit delivery, e-wallets were used and thus beneficiaries did not need to collect the cash in banks or post offices. The National Aid Fund supported the beneficiaries by providing guidance on how to register through SMS, and even providing those e-wallets directly – which do not require the usage of smartphones.

The experience of the new Takaful emergency programme shows that the beneficiary identification process experienced fewer errors due to the use of digital technology. These digital payments through e-wallets also reduced transportation costs for beneficiaries, as well as improve their ability to appeal through other methods, such as the Takaful website and the NAF´S call centre hotline. Furthermore, the use of e-wallets allegedly reduced fraud by applicants compared to when beneficiaries received their cash through post offices.

On the other hand, while there were efforts to make e-wallets easily accessible across Jordan, gaps in digital financial inclusion remain, as some groups have lower access to mobile and online tools, such as women, poor households, or people living in rural areas. Despite a higher coverage of Takaful 2 and Takaful 3, the Jordanian social protection system's ability to properly provide the benefits for some of these groups remains to be seen.

Togo: Novissi

As a response to COVID-19, Togo’s government created the Novissi unconditional cash transfer programme for informal that resorted to various digital technologies along every step in its delivery chain. According to the Ministry of Digital Economy and Transformation, Novissi reached nearly 820,000 people in 2022. Its success led to a second phase of the programme, intending to set up a more permanent cash transfer in the country.

The usage of digital tools in the case of Novissi combined different types of digital tools, through the internet but also through technology that could be used by 2G phones (without an internet connection) during the enrolment of beneficiaries as well as via mobile money payments, adapting to the digital infrastructure to Togo´s context.

Moreover, the identification of beneficiaries was done using Artificial Intelligence (AI), satellite imagery, cell phone metadata (such as location through the cell towers they are connected to), and machine learning, which were all used even more often and broadly in its second phase. The data gathered through these processes allowed to estimate a consumption proxy that identified households under a defined poverty threshold. Voter identification was the main identification mechanism used by Novissi as well, serving as the type of ID used in the enrolment process, and to transfer cash to mobile money accounts. Togo´s case also illustrated how using digital technology at every step of the delivery chain has the potential to prevent fraud and duplication of beneficiaries, as efforts were made to crack down on it. Steps to reduce or avoid the use of private data were taken, through safeguards on who had access to data, anonymisation, encryption and access protocols that removed personal information.

Digital solutions, as mentioned before, can however lead to the exclusion of some vulnerable individuals. In Togo, it possibly led to the exclusion of particularly vulnerable people without access to voter ID. Efforts to address the lack of a national ID database are currently being undertaken, using the lessons learned from Novissi’s stint with identification and enrolment. Finally, access to mobile phones and SIM cards is not universal either, possibly excluding some of the poorest households in Togo, where ownership rates are likely relatively lower.

Cambodia’s Emergency cash transfer

Cambodia’s emergency COVID-19 Cash Transfer Programme was implemented starting in June 2020, using existing digital infrastructure such as digital databases and MISs to expand upon in response to the pandemic. As such, Cambodia used the existing ID-Poor database to provide benefits to beneficiaries of existing programmes but expanded upon it through the On-demand ID-Poor tool to accelerate the registration process (Burattini et al., 2022). This innovation was key to support the registration of new beneficiaries in a timely manner during the pandemic, reaching around 700.000 households total, including previous beneficiaries and new ones (IPC-IG, 2021).

The programme also relied on community structures and the use of offline digital tools to overcome barriers to social protection faced by the rural population. The usage of tablets and training of commune officials via digital platforms facilitated the expansion of the beneficiaries list for the cash transfer programme.

The ability to provide benefits through digital means in Cambodia is limited, however, without proper infrastructure to support it: only around half of the population has internet access, and usage is lower for those above 25 years old (ITU, 2022), even if mobile usage is a lot higher across the board. This was an issue regarding digital payment through the “Wing system”, an e-payment tool. For instance, it faced issues when many tried to withdraw cash at the same time, which resulted in long waiting times, because of the issues with the app itself, and the availability of connection in some areas. Payment in rural areas has also been hampered by slow internet connection, when available.




This post is part of the ‘COVID-19 Social Protection response series’, a 12-piece blog series featuring discussions based on data and evidence from the interactive dashboard ‘Social protection responses to COVID-19 in the Global South’, developed by the former International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) in partnership with SPACE and sponsored by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and UNDP Brazil. The dashboard illustrates part of the data compiled in the COVID-19 tracking matrix and provides detailed insights into countries’ social protection responses to the crisis, working as a repository of experiences and government practices in shock-responsive social protection taking place in developing countries worldwide. Its indicators are divided into seven thematic sections: overview of responses, type of adaptation, timeliness, identification of beneficiaries and application tools; delivery mechanisms; coverage; and adequacy of benefits. This blog series is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) of Australia.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
  • Labour market / employment programmes
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Programme implementation
    • Benefits payment / delivery
    • Enrolment / registration
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Digital social protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Health
    • COVID-19
  • Togo
  • Cambodia
  • Jordan
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's