Governments around the world are turning to automation to deliver public services like food, housing, and cash assistance to their citizens. The World Bank is a major driver of this trend, providing loans and technical support to implement technology for enrollment decisions, verification of applications, and delivering benefits. However, the development of these technologies has led to glaring flaws that exclude people from much-needed services based on errors, discriminatory policies, and stereotypes about poverty. The case of Jordan&https://adarima.org/?aHR0cHM6Ly9tY3J5cHRvLmNsdWIvY2F0ZWdvcnJ5Lz93cHNhZmVsaW5rPU1vbW5CUVI4bkJ3QXBic0NhZGZFZUZsZ2lIbmlrVWxNNWQySmhiaXM1UjNSNmNFcG1aa3RZVjNCVlVUMDk-8217;s cash transfer program, Takaful, illustrates these problems.
Takaful is a program financed by the World Bank that distributes cash transfers to households based on their socio-economic status. It assesses whether applicants meet eligibility criteria before applying an algorithm to rank them from least poor to poorest. The government makes cash transfers to the households ranked most vulnerable. However, some of the indicators used in the algorithm, such as car ownership and household size calculations, are problematic and can reinforce discriminatory policies. Moreover, the algorithm uses inaccurate data, making it difficult for people to reflect their true economic situation in their application.
The application process for Takaful is also flawed. The government has made the application available online, but many people in Jordan do not have access to mobile broadband or mobile phones. Those that cannot apply online have to go to certain government offices or temporary registration centers or rely on family and friends to apply for them. Additionally, the benefits are deposited into e-wallets, requiring people to pay fees to withdraw their payments, further reducing already scarce resources.
Senior Researcher Amos Toh highlights the need for a fundamental shift in the way social protection systems are built. Instead of using technology to try and fix poverty targeting, which is a woefully insufficient way to address a fundamental flaw, countries should transition to universal social protection where all people in certain life situations get support, regardless of income or wealth. Such a system would be more comprehensive and equitable than using technology to perpetuate stereotypes about poverty.
It is worth noting that poverty targeting technology is not unique to Jordan, and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that receive World Bank loans are also introducing or upgrading this technology. The number of countries operating poverty targeting technology has jumped from 23 to 60 between 2013 and 2022. Thus, it is important for the World Bank to take responsibility for how such programs are designed and ensure that they do not perpetuate stereotypes and discriminate against vulnerable populations.