The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in vast numbers of people in need of social assistance, many of whom were not previously covered by social safety nets. To meet this unprecedented level of need, governments quickly scaled social assistance reaching over 1.7 billion people in low- and middle income countries. Scaling up social assistance presented two separate but related challenges: first, adapting targeting and registration to reach individuals not commonly included in social assistance databases, such as urban informal workers, and second, how to deliver government to person (G2P) payments safely and securely in the context of the pandemic. Countries that could leverage pre-pandemic investments in digital public infrastructure (DPI)— identification (ID), payments and trusted data sharing—were better able to implement COVID-response social assistance programs and reach more beneficiaries. This paper, analyzes the role of these DPIs, also called digital stack, in the social protection response to COVID by analyzing data on how COVID-response social assistance programs registered and made payments to beneficiaries across 178 programs and 85 countries. The analysis shows how these digital systems and infrastructure allowed for innovative targeting, registration, and payment approaches that covered a significant portion of the population. This paper uses administrative data on G2P registration and payment methods combined with anecdotal evidence from country case studies to show how pre-pandemic investments in digital databases, digital ID, and digital payments impacted countries’ abilities to reach new beneficiaries and deliver payments safely in the context of the pandemic response. It further details workaround solutions implemented by countries without these assets and infrastructure in place, and how some countries were able to expand their digital infrastructure even amidst the urgency of the crisis response. The analysis concludes with suggestions as to the impact that the social assistance response to COVID-19 can have on the future of social protection payments, in terms of inspiring investments in building and strengthening G2P ecosystems globally.

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