Digital Technology to Scale Up COVID-19 Social Assistance: What Have We Learned?

Since mid-March, countries around the world have imposed strict lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19, disrupting the livelihoods of billions of people around the world. The hardest hit have been those who were already poor or who fell into poverty since the pandemic—the “new poor.” In response, many countries launched unprecedented relief packages to cushion the economic and social impact of the pandemic. Social protection measures have grown exponentially: according to the most recent update of the World Bank’s database, since March a total of 200 countries/territories have planned or put in place over one thousand social protection measures, with social assistance accounting for more than 60 percent of them. New or scaled-up COVID-19 social assistance in the form of cash transfers now reaches nearly 1.1 billion beneficiaries, one in every six people in the world.

Most of these were designed, financed, and implemented by developing country governments themselves. Especially with the constraints of COVID-19, digital technology has played a critical role. In a new CGD policy paper, we draw on early evidence from selected countries on the use of digital technology to implement these government-to-people (G2P) social transfer programs. Our review suggests that an important objective for policymakers in the post-COVID period will be to build on the capabilities developed during the crisis to strengthen social protection and payment systems and render them more inclusive, effective, and sustainable. This includes addressing the challenges faced especially by women, who are often digitally disadvantaged.

Themes: Beneficiary Identification, Targeting, Onboarding, COVID-19, Digital Payment Ecosystems, Financial Inclusion