Serbia, a digital social protection system worsens poverty

In Serbiapopulations affected by poverty and marginalization sink deeper into poverty as more automated social benefits systemfinanced by the World Bank, deprived of helpwrites Amnesty International in a report published on Monday, December 4.

This report, titled Trapped in Automation: Poverty and Discrimination in Serbia’s Welfare State (Trapped by Automation: Poverty and Discrimination in Serbia’s Welfare State)shows that many people, especially Roma and people with disabilities, are unable to pay their bills or feed their families and struggle to make ends meet, having been deprived of benefits after the introduction of social card registration.

“Already marginalized groups suffered the most serious consequences of the implementation of this automated system, which had a disproportionate impact on their access to benefits”

“Serbia’s social card registration proves what we have known for a long time: the automation of social support systems can exacerbate inequalities, consolidate or accentuate discrimination and pose a serious risk to human rights,” said Damini Satija, head from the Amnesty Technology Algorithmic Accountability Lab.

“Instead of making benefit payments more equitable, it excluded thousands of people, whose only source of income was the social protection program, and deprived them of crucial assistance. Already marginalized groups suffered the most serious consequences of the implementation of this automated system, which had a disproportionate impact on their access to benefits. »

Lives reduced to data points

Launched in 2022 and aimed at strengthening the country’s social protection system, the Social Card Registry introduced automation, including a data-based system, in the process of evaluating criteria for granting social support. But instead of making the existing social protection system fairer, social card registration has had the opposite effect in many cases. In the year and a half since its introduction, some people living in extreme poverty have lost or had their benefits reduced, putting them into serious financial hardship and leaving them unable to meet their most basic needs.

Social card registration extracts data such as income, age, household composition, health status, employment status and other information from pre-existing government databases in order to establish a socio-economic profile of people applying for social assistance , and forwards cases for review to social workers, which constitutes a semi-automatic decision-making process. The accuracy of information from these databases plays a vital role in ensuring fair enforcement outcomes and maintaining social assistance.

Amnesty International’s research, however, shows that this data is often of very poor quality, especially for people from marginalized groups, whose documentation and records in government systems are often not up to date. The use of this inaccurate information from databases that are not regularly updated, or from data that does not take into account the reality of a person’s complex economic situation, results in an increased likelihood of errors, depriving people of the benefits they deserve. who are entitled.

Secondly, semi-automation has reduced the role of social workers in verifying applicants’ data and supporting documentation. Previously, social workers conducted field visits and interviews to understand the complex realities of people’s lives, but social card registration has reduced the economic realities of people living in poverty to often obsolete data. other.

In the report, Amnesty International provides information about the case of Mirjana, who was unable to receive social assistance after a local human rights organization helped her cover the costs of her funeral.

“The registration of social cards is an imprecise and inadequate tool, whose implementation does not pay much attention to its impact”

The donation of 20 thousand Serbian dinars (around 170 euros) paid by the organization to Mirjana’s bank account was immediately marked by the social card record as income that excluded her from social assistance. Almost overnight, Mirjana, who survived on modest social benefits and lived in a social housing complex, lost his support.

Just two months after her daughter’s death, Mirjana found herself fighting a long and uncertain administrative battle to restore the benefits she had lost.

“The registration of social cards is an imprecise and inadequate tool, whose implementation does not pay much attention to its impact. Amnesty International’s investigation has demonstrated that centralized automation systems for assessing eligibility can solidify an already exclusionary approach to the distribution of social assistance,” said Damini Satija.

Trapped in an administrative maze

Amnesty International found that the length and complexity of the appeals procedure for people deprived of social assistance sometimes had the effect of discouraging them from making complaints, effectively undermining their right to appeal. In cases where the beneficiary’s data is incorrect or out of date, it is your responsibility to verify and rectify these errors. This is often difficult, if not impossible, within the 15-day deadline for filing an appeal.

“Social card registration worsened gaps that already existed in Serbia’s social security system and revealed the very real dangers of introducing automation in the absence of protections against human rights violations”

These people were unable to obtain an explanation from social workers as to why their support was reduced or withdrawn, forcing them into an administrative maze and forcing them to seek information from different government services to determine the source of the errors and try to fix them. When an individual or family is excluded from social assistance, they must wait three months before they can reapply for assistance, regardless of their circumstances or financial needs. People who were already in very difficult situations then fall into poverty.

“The Social Card Registry worsened the gaps that already existed in Serbia’s social security system and revealed the very real dangers of introducing automation in the absence of protections against human rights violations. Without careful assessment, data-driven automation systems can easily become mechanisms of exclusion, segmentation and oppression,” said Damini Satija.

The World Bank supported the development of the social card registry by providing technical advice and financial assistance. This project is part of a broader World Bank program to support the creation of registries of this type in the field of social protection. The financial institution has sponsored or promoted similar databases in other countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Haiti, Nigeria, Morocco, and Angola, as well as neighboring Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and comparable crowding out effects have also been observed. in other locations.

“The World Bank and governments – notably in Serbia – must carry out robust assessments of human rights risks, both in the design and implementation of these programs, and ensure that the development of the system eliminates potential threats to human rights. Above all, if it is impossible to prevent risks to human rights, it means that the system is not adequate and should not be implemented,” said Damini Satija.

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