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Digitalising Social Protection: Three lessons learnt

Digitalisation is a facilitator of strong social protection systems. The information systems used by social protection programmes are an invaluable resource for monitoring, managing, and delivering social protection benefits and services to the public.

When COVID-19 first struck, digital technologies played a crucial role in the rapid design, and roll out of, emergency programmes at scale; mitigating the impact of the pandemic-related disruption globally. As the world emerges from the pandemic, it faces new challenges such as climate change, demographic shifts, conflict and inflation, among others. Digitalisation has the potential to protect livelihoods, enhance inclusion and promote equity, especially in developing countries. There are, however, risks. If not well-designed and implemented, people can be excluded due to poorly designed and inaccessible solutions, and lack of access to – or sufficient knowledge of – technology. The challenge for policymakers, practitioners and the donor community, is to ensure that digitalisation of social protection strives to benefit the poor and the vulnerable; not leave them behind.


1. The digitalisation of social protection consists of four core elements: (i) a foundational digital ID system; (ii) digital/mobile communications; (iii) digital payment systems; and (iv) digitised beneficiary databases and registries.

A key manner in which digital technology strengthens social protection systems is by better identifying, enrolling and transferring benefits to people who need social protection, with the aim of leaving no one behind. For this to happen, there needs to be integration across identification systems, social registries and other databases (e.g. CRVS2); creating the conditions for a coordinated response. Data harmonisation, exchange and interoperability is therefore a critical dimension – along with a legal framework to protect personal information, which is a by-product of a digitalised delivery system.

2. During the global pandemic, countries used digital technologies creatively and innovatively to roll out new social protection programmes or scale up existing ones.

Countries are increasingly using geospatial data, cellular networks and mobile phones, to design and deliver social protection. In the first six months of the COVID-19 lockdowns, over 200 countries rolled out more than a thousand social protection programmes – more than sixty percent of which were direct cash transfers. Given the restrictions on peoples’ interactions, movements and gatherings during COVID-19, countries used a “digital first” approach to identify and support the poor and vulnerable remotely. Programmes were designed to locate and reach those most affected by the pandemic, such as the urban poor (“missing middle”) in countries like Colombia, Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These included poverty maps using satellite imagery, machine learning algorithms, and digital payments using mobile wallets. The rapid scale up, and the use of digital technologies during the pandemic response, provides lessons and guidance as countries move towards an inclusive, efficient and effective social protection system in the coming years.

3. There is a large gap in digital preparedness, implementation capacity and fiscal resources between developed and developing countries, which needs to be addressed urgently.

Developing countries often lack basic digital infrastructure and regulatory frameworks for strong digital social protection systems. They also lack the technical capacity and financial resources to address the objectives of digital transformation, especially in terms of inclusion and coverage of all potential beneficiaries – including the poor and the most vulnerable. A common scenario involves fragmentation of data and information systems across various ministries, departments and agencies, increasing the burden of multiple funding accounts for various information systems. Consequently, interoperability – the breaking down of silos – becomes a significant challenge over time. This is especially true in the case of social protection, which spans multiple sectors such as health, education, nutrition, jobs, unemployment benefits and old-age security.3

Final thoughts

Universal social protection for all is still an aspiration in most developing countries. However, the experience of designing and implementing large-scale programmes during COVID-19 has demonstrated that with digitalised systems, adequate financing and necessary safeguards, countries can move quickly towards achieving that ambition.

In most cases, the starting point for digitalising social protection is not technology: it is a clear set of policies, strategies, and programmes where technology and a “digital-first” thinking is core to the design and delivery, putting people at the forefront of digital transformation. This is as true for partner country governments as it is for the development assistance community who support the move towards the digitalisation of social protection systems.


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DISCLAIMER: The information provided is based on the content of the thematic paper “Digital Social Protection: e-solutions for basic service delivery” and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission. This article was produced in collaboration with the social protection expert Anit Mukherjee, author of the thematic paper.



1 These lessons are drawn from a thematic paper produced for the Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA) and EU Delegations – with support from the INTPA.D4-managed Methodological Knowledge Sharing (MKS) Programme – entitled “Digital Social Protection: e-solutions for basic service delivery”. The paper is available to staff of DG INTPA and EU Delegations.

2 Civil registration and vital statistics.

3 For more information, read here.

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last update
23 November 2022

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