Using What You Have to Scale up Payments for COVID Response: Early Indications from South Asia

COVID-19 has effectively shut down the global economy, leaving billions of people around the world with little means of support. More than 100 countries have announced measures to provide social assistance, including cash transfers and in-kind food distribution. Their capacity to respond will determine how effective these measures will be—especially for the “new poor,” those who have been thrust into poverty as their livelihoods have been severely affected by the pandemic. Many are urban migrants, unable to work due to lockdowns and not covered by existing social safety nets.

Success in providing assistance will be shaped by two main factors: the fiscal space to scale up spending, and the ability to transfer resources quickly and efficiently to those in greatest need. The World Bank, IMF, and humanitarian organizations have noted that the ability to transfer resources quickly will depend on existing investments in safety nets, transfer mechanisms, and data and information systems, how they can be leveraged, and how countries can innovate on top of existing delivery mechanisms, almost in real time.

We agree. Our message to countries is simple: Use what you have now to scale up quickly and build on your strengths to build back better systems.

While every case is different, it is useful to compare countries at a similar stage of development and with a shared history. Together, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh constitute over one fifth of the world’s population and almost half of the global poor. All have been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These countries also sustain critical social safety net programs which, despite implementation challenges, deliver social assistance at scale. All have transitioned, to a greater or lesser degree, towards using digital ID, financial accounts, and mobile technology in their social programs. Those are the three pillars of a digital trinity, called JAM in India, that forms the basis for effective and targeted social programs, as we’ve written about extensively. It is still early days and data on actual implementation is scarce, but this blog offers an initial view on the ways in which the JAM is being used to scale up support.

Themes: COVID-19, Digital Payment Ecosystems, Financial Inclusion