Risks and Benefits of Digital Tools for Social Protection Delivery from a Gender Perspective

Becky Faith (2023), UN Women

The purported cost-saving and efficiency benefits of automating and digitising social protection systems are hard for governments to ignore at a time of multiple, overlapping climate and financial crises, and shrinking budgets for social protection. Digitised systems can reduce transaction costs, enable real-time analysis, and deliver affordances of scale and efficiency for humanitarian actors and governments. Digital payments also can mitigate some of the risks involved in the delivery of cash and voucher assistance (CVA), such as the dangers involved in transporting money and in conflict settings, and can be popular with recipients due to the privacy they afford (Burton, 2020). The use of predictive analytics for targeting of CVA payments offers the potential for quicker, cheaper, and more efficient enrolment, verification, and delivery of cash at scale (Raftree and Kondakhchyan, 2021).

Yet the drive to digitise must not come at the cost of our fundamental human right to social security. As systems for accessing social protection are increasingly delivered through digital channels the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warned of the “grave risk of stumbling, zombie-like, into a digital welfare dystopia” (Alston, 2019). This reinforces the call from UN-Women for ‘a human rights-centred approach to underpin the development and implementation of digital and automation technologies in social and welfare services in order to ensure gender equality in their application.’ (Wajcman et al., 2020)

Whilst there has been significant work on the gendered impacts of these systems in Europe (Digital Future Society, 2020b), less attention has been paid to understanding the broader global picture. This paper outlines a framework for understanding the impact of digitisation on women’s right to social protection, referring to a broad range of research from both the mainstream social protection literature and work on cash and voucher assistance in humanitarian contexts. This report shows how intersecting gendered inequalities can increase women’s risk of exclusion and discrimination, and how these inequalities run through the entire architecture of digitised social protection systems, ultimately threatening women’s rights to access social protection.

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