What Does Privacy Have To Do With Social Protection?

Date: 8 October 2014
Author: Robert Maganga Mwanyumba

What Does Privacy Have To Do With Social Protection?

Often when the impact of social protection is discussed, extensive monitoring and evaluation mechanisms are pulled out of the bag and the degree to which poverty has been alleviated is put forth as the yard stick. What these considerations sometimes fail to acknowledge is the compounding effects of poverty: the poor suffer not only the debilitating effects of poverty, but also, on a separate plane, the indignity of the deprivation of a myriad of rights which are often not even regarded as being connected with poverty One such right is the right to privacy. It is rarely, if ever, considered within the same context as social protection. Articles written by Carly Nyst and Nicholas Freeland on this platform point toward the dilemma in targeting versus maintaining human rights standards, as well as balancing development needs and the right to privacy.

As social protection programmes become increasingly popular across the African continent, pilots have turned into fully-fledged programmes that are progressively increasing the number of beneficiaries as well as geographical coverage (Gentilini et al., 2014) . As with many different programmes, implementing agencies often seek the efficiencies of technology and social protection programmes are no exception (Sahu, 2011).The Hunger Safety Net Programme in Kenya uses a bio-metric smart card which combines the use of finger prints and smart cards for registration and payments to beneficiaries (Ministry of State for Planning, 2012). One of the payment options in South Africa’s Child Support Grant is through direct deposit into one’s bank account which can then be accessed through ATMs. The embrace of technology in different facets of programme implementation cannot be denied nor can it be evaded.

One factor driving the use of technology in programmes is the large numbers of persons living in poverty on the continent. This has led to many governments choosing to roll out programmes in a piece-meal fashion to ensure that the most deserving cases are covered by the resource constrained programmes (Gentilini et al., 2014). The consequence of programming restrictions is that targeting has become modus operandi for many programmes across the continent leading to vast amounts of personal information (profiling information) about beneficiaries being collected . in order to categorize the poor. One does not merely qualify for a programme by being poor but rather falls within a specific grouping often set by a mix of targeting mechanisms as determined by an implementing agency. This means that not only do you check the box for being poor, but in most cases you meet a number of other indicators that conform to a standard of poverty which matches the design of a particular programme.

Suffice it to say that when technology and vast amounts of information comes together, both potential and real violations rear their ugly heads.

The findings from recent research carried out by the Africa Platform for Social Protection (APSP) with support from Privacy International, point to the foresight of programme designers of the Older Persons Cash Transfer (OPCT) in Kenya, in the inclusion of regulatory provisions for privacy rights (APSP, 2014). Policy and legislative prescriptions stemming from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), right through to municipal legislation; safeguard the privacy rights of all individuals. However, although privacy rights are safeguarded in programming provisions, the main purpose of the programme is the alleviation of poverty, predicated on the right to social security. Frequently, delivering services (in this case cash transfers) is prioritized higher than other elements of the programme design such as the right to privacy. Some implementing agencies, as well as some beneficiaries, consider social protection provisions as token handouts that are provided on the initiative of the implementer; from this perspective, no other responsibilities can be imposed on the implementing agencies as long as they continue to ‘do good’. In such cases, privacy is neither a priority nor considered a right but simply a condition mentioned in some international instrument or body. So although the right to social security and the right to privacy can co-exist, they are sometimes applied in a mutually exclusive manner where privacy does not intertwine with social protection provision.

Due to the debilitating nature of poverty, many suffer an indignity and a crisis of self in which they are not able to appreciate the urgent need for privacy. Privacy becomes a secondary consideration in the pursuit of a means for survival and may render the most vulnerable even more so (APSP, 2014). Kenya’s Older Persons Cash Transfer programme for instance, in its targeting, collects information on a potential beneficiary’s: health status, financial capabilities, educational background, identification details to name but a few (Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development, 2011). This information spells the difference between being enrolled and living out a miserable existence. The question here then becomes one that is ethical and moral. To what extent should implementing agencies consider enforcing privacy rights and does this come at the expense of ensuring that benefits are transmitted to alleviate poverty?

The two can indeed be bedfellows that are applied in equal measure without individuals trading one for the other. Regional instruments such as the African Charter for Human and Peoples Rights establish the requisite framework for safeguarding privacy rights. These can be read in conjunction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as complementary municipal legislation (Privacy International and National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Kenya, 2014). This should form an integral part of any social protection programme.

Key to safeguarding privacy rights in social protection is not only the letter of the law but also the spirit behind it that allows beneficiaries to enjoy their rights in full knowledge of these rights. From the outset, implementing agencies need to create awareness of programmatic requirements and seek explicit consent to use information provided for the purposes of the programme. This is an opportunity for civil society to not only create awareness of the right to social protection, but also of the right to privacy.

Violations such as impersonation, data deletion, blackmail etc. can occur after data has been collected and therefore, stringent controls of all handling of beneficiary data are needed. The disconnect between policy and practice needs to be overcome by implementing agencies. More often than not the provisions for privacy of information are merely token measures accompanying the prerequisite conditions for programme roll-out. However, in the quest to ensure that social protection programmes have the desired impact, privacy of information has to be thoroughly enforced to eliminate instances of fraud, corruption and waste.

Africa Platform for Social Protection (APSP). 2014. Management of Personal Information in the Older Persons Cash Transfer Programme in Kenya, Nairobi: APSP.

CaLP. 2013. Protecting Beneficiary Privacy; Principles and Operational Standards for the Secure Use of Personal Data in Cash and E-Transfer Programmes. Oxford: CaLP.

Gentilini, Ugo, Maddalena Honorati and Ruslan Yemtsov. 2014. The state of social safety nets 2014. Washington, DC : World Bank Group.

Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development. 2011. The Old Persons Cash Transfer Programme Operations Manual. Nairobi: Government of Kenya.

Ministry of State for Planning, National Development, and Vision 2030. 2012. Kenya Social Protection Sector Review, 2012. Nairobi: Government of Kenya.

Privacy International and National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Kenya. 2014. Stakeholders Report for the 21st Session of the Universal Periodic Review.

Sahu, Satyabrata. 2011. “Mainstreaming Information & Communication Technology (ICT) For Social Protection; Challenges and Opportunities in Asia and the Pacific.” Tech Monitor, Jan-Feb 2011.


Robert Maganga Mwanyumba is Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for the Africa Platform for Social Protection (APSP). He holds a Master of Arts in International Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and a Certificate from the Economic Policy Research Institute in collaboration with Maastricht University and the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) in Designing and Implementing Social Protection Programmes. He is specialized in advocacy and communications, stakeholder engagement and policy development in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Social Protection and Human Rights