Digital platforms have been a boon for social assistance in African countries during the pandemic

Informal traders benefited from the cash transfers in Lomé, Togo.
Informal traders benefited from the cash transfers in Lomé, Togo.
Image: REUTERS/Noel Kokou Tadegnon
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Back in April, Togo launched a social welfare program using digital cash transfers as the government tried to help informal workers whose livelihoods had been disrupted by the pandemic and the accompanying lockdown. The Novissi program, which was launched on April 8, signed up more than 1 million citizens in its first week. Up to 65% of the eligible beneficiaries were women.

The initial campaign ended on June 6 after the west African country eased lockdowns that had been in place in capital city Lomé and central Togo. Now the government has reoriented Novissi for implementation in regions where a curfew is imposed after a spike in Covid-19 cases. Most recently, it reintroduced the cash transfer program in Soudou, about 250 miles north of Lomé. Within two weeks, up to 85% of the adult population in the area, around 6,000 people, had received cash transfers.

Since March, according to the World Bank’s database, up to 200 countries and territories have planned or put in place more than 1,000 social protection measures, including new or scaled-up Covid-19 social assistance in the form of cash transfers that now reach nearly 1.1 billion beneficiaries.

While Togo’s mobile-based digital program stood out early on, the country was not alone in Africa in providing social welfare relief for its citizens. More than 40 African nations have introduced or expanded social welfare programs since the pandemic, according to data compiled by the Milken Institute’s Covid-19 Africa Watch. So far, 36 African countries have offered cash transfers to eligible citizens (the requirements vary) while around 15 countries provide food assistance. A few offer both.

These programs are particularly vital in African countries whose economies are dominated by the informal sector, where large sections of the adult population earn their living from day-to-day transactions and informal employment. Even once curfews have been eased, the after-effects of lockdown leave few significant opportunities to earn a living in many of these countries, particularly in the urban areas.

A shift for social welfare

Outside of emergencies and conflicts, few of these countries had substantial social welfare programs in place before Covid-19. In some of them, the pandemic has shifted thinking about social welfare such that approaches to it may change long-term.

The technology helps. Digital tools are being used to overcome some of the biggest cash-transfer challenges for developing countries, particularly with communications, recruiting new citizens, digital ID, screening for eligibility, and delivering payments. Togo’s government, for example, says its long-term goal is to expand on the Novissi platform and methodology to deliver other social safety net programs digitally.

A new policy paper (pdf) from the Center for Global Development in Washington DC focuses on the role of digital technology in enabling efficient “G2P” (government to person) social assistance. It shows how the challenges facing developing countries during the pandemic have forced them to seriously consider the benefits of cash-transfer programs for the first time. The authors point out that digital technology can help reduce the cost of running such programs and that countries which have already enabled investment in digital infrastructure and financial services will see more immediate benefits.

“The Covid-19 period will undoubtedly spur further use of digital mechanisms to deliver social protection,” write CGD’s Alan Gleb and Anit Mukherjee. “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 sustainable social protection and payment systems that are both inclusive and effective, in particular addressing the challenges faced by women, who are often digitally disadvantaged.”

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