JOHANNESBURG – For all its devastation, the COVID-19 crisis does have a silver lining: it has shone a spotlight on important policy lapses – beginning with the lack of social protection for the world’s two billion informal workers. But addressing this failure will require more than social programs; it will also require governments to bridge the digital divide.
During the pandemic, social programs supporting the “missing middle” – informal workers who are excluded from standard employment-linked social security and often do not qualify for social programs that target the very poor – relied heavily on digital technologies. Registration happened on smartphones. Governments verified beneficiaries using digital identification systems. Payments landed in e-wallets.
This welcome use of digital technology streamlined procedures and enabled workers to avoid face-to-face interactions when they applied for or collected benefits. But this approach also implies an obvious risk: exclusion of those on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The experience of informal waste reclaimers here in Johannesburg is instructive. When the South African government introduced the Social Relief of Distress cash grant for adults excluded from other forms of government support during the pandemic, applications were to be submitted by a website form, email, WhatsApp, or an Unstructured Supplementary Data code.
This promised efficiency, but also kept the application out of reach for many waste reclaimers. According to Steven Leeuw, a former member of the African Reclaimers Organization (ARO), “90% of the people we work with don’t have a cell phone. If they do, it’s usually an old one that doesn’t really work, or they don’t have money for data, or anywhere to access free WiFi.”
Fortunately, the ARO stepped in to help members apply. That meant not only filling in and submitting applications, but also performing any additional administrative steps if the initial application was rejected. According to Leeuw, “It would have just been easier if [the South African Social Security Agency] had sent officials around to our workplaces to help people sign up for the grant.”
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There are similar stories around the world. In Mexico City, the cash grant offered to non-salaried workers was initially accessible only through an online application. “I went three times to the inter
For starters, as governments invest in the digital transition (including by directing large amounts of funds to the private sector), they must also support the work of grassroots organizations providing essential last-mile services to connect people to their entitlements. As it stands, few grassroots organizations in the Global South are able to raise the financial resources needed to sustain their work.
Moreover, governments must create mechanisms for meaningful consultation with these organizations, in order to design programs that meet target groups’ needs, monitor and assess progress, and make necessary changes. Frontline bureaucratic workers, such as social workers and registration officials, will also need greater support, including to expand their ranks in some cases.
Of course, closing the digital divide should also be a high priority. That means expanding access to digital technologies, including mobile phones and broadband internet, and ensuring that people have the knowledge to use them. And grassroots organizations have a vital role to play here as well. But, in the meantime, the digital divide must be bridged to enable the most vulnerable to access crucial government support.