Malawi’s bold vision for a unified social registry

21.06.2018 - Article

Malawi blazes a trail with the creation of a single, integrated database for social protection programmes.

Feeding back to the communiy after the data collection.
Feeding back to the communiy after the data collection.© GIZ

With German support, Malawi is developing a state-of-the-art social registry, providing a single source of data for the many social protection programmes operating in the country. It will reduce fragmentation of social protection efforts, enable more efficient use of resources, and produce made-to-measure data sets for a wide range of clients.

Imagine a low-income country with high levels of external support and multiple social protection programmes. Different partners use different systems and approaches to identify families in need. At the local level, teams working on behalf of the programmes are constantly out in communities, often visiting the same households to gather the same information, using people’s precious time and absorbing limited resources. Numerous committees are set up where the same busy people sit to discuss who should benefit from each new programme. They cannot say no as the funds are a critical lifeline for those who receive them.

This was Malawi before the advent of the Unified Social Registry, also known as the Unified Beneficiary Registry (UBR), with high levels of fragmentation and huge inefficiencies in systems for identifying and providing support and protection to poor households. A complete absence of inter-operability between the IT systems of the different programmes resulted in the potential for overlapping support to some households, and a lack of support to others.

Recognising this situation, and not wanting to be locked into a specific design, with a system which they cannot maintain or even change without external support, the Malawi Government called for a ‘home-grown’ solution.

Household receipt for UBR Registration.
Household receipt for UBR Registration.© GIZ

The UBR concept

With support from the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) through German development agency GIZ and other partners, Malawi is developing a dynamic, integrated data management platform that is both comprehensive and client-oriented. Based on a single community registration process and with Application Programme Interfaces (API) that enable the different social protection programmes to extract data according to their needs, the new system will enable more efficient and creative use of resources.

Anchored in the National Social Support Programme, Malawi’s UBR is ‘state of the art’; designed with cutting-edge technical expertise and incorporating best practices from countries that have developed their own unified registries. As the UBR is rolled out, social protection programmes not only extract data from it, they can also feed information back with the aim of tracking the enrollment of poor families. For the first time, stakeholders will have a comprehensive picture of the type, level and timing of support provided to poor households, right across the country. In the longer-term, it is hoped the UBR can support the move towards a case management approach, strengthening the capacity of the Malawi Government and its partners to build the resilience of Malawi’s poorest families. As highlighted by current GIZ Team Leader, Selvi Vikan, for the Malawi-German Social Protection Programme, this move also reflects the current shift in discourse from top-down social protection approaches to more effective ‘bottom-up’ entitlement approaches.

Dayton Nkhoma, District Training Team member, Dowa District.
Dayton Nkhoma, District Training Team member, Dowa District.© GIZ

UBR structures & processes

To implement the UBR, stakeholders agreed on a simple structure that is fully aligned with Malawi’s decentralisation process. A central UBR office is responsible for overall supervision of data collection, cleaning and maintaining the data, and a District Social Support Committee led by the Director of Planning and Development oversees the work of Community Social Support Committees in each district.

Community extension workers or enumerators use handheld tablets to gather the data during house-to-house visits using a standardized, comprehensive questionnaire. Once connectivity is established, data are transferred directly to the UBR central server in Lilongwe for cleaning, and data quality is checked by a team of monitors. Data are up-dated once every four years. As of March 2018, data from over 700,000 households in 11 of Malawi’s 28 districts had been entered into the UBR database, comprising some 3.2 million individuals.

A relatively objective but proximate measure of household poverty using socio-economic indicators (known as a ‘proxy means test’) is applied to the data in order to rank households and identify those in most need. Two initial and important UBR clients are the national Social Cash Transfer Programme, supported by the German Government through the German development bank KfW and other development partners, which targets the poorest 10 percent of labour-constrained households, and the World Bank-supported Public Works Programme (MASAF 4).

UBR team wins first prize in Goverment Inovations.
UBR team wins first prize in “Goverment Inovations”.© GIZ

Collaboration at its best

So why is Malawi succeeding where so many others have failed? The answers lie in the bold, clear vision and leadership of the Malawi Government, and a development process which has been – and remains - truly collaborative. While the initiative is spearheaded by the Ministry of Finance, implementation on the ground is mainly supported by the district councils. The Social Protection Steering Committee is chaired by the Chief Secretary to the Office of the President and Cabinet, demonstrating high-level government support for the sector. GIZ has played a catalytic role in developing the UBR, and technical assistance is provided by both GIZ and IT specialists Development Pathways, based in Kenya. Additional financial and technical support is provided by the World Bank, which is a key partner, as well as UN organisations FAO, ILO, WFP and UNICEF.

Government Task Forces have played a critical role in engaging the IT, social protection and M&E specialists from across government departments and development partners in a process of consultation that has included a diverse range of agencies from the Ministry of Gender to the Ministry of Education. The hiring of ‘neutral’ office premises outside Government, and the setup of open-plan spaces to foster creative thinking have enabled rapid learning.

The UBR development work was broken down into small steps called sprints, whereby the IT consultants worked alongside the Malawi UBR team using open source software, to ensure that all stakeholders were on board and had full technical knowledge and understanding at every step of the way. This is leading to more embedded and sustainable outcomes with strong government ownership. According to previous Team Leader Ralf Radermacher, who played a critical role in the development of the UBR, ‘the process of co-production of the software between the Malawian Government team and technical supporters in joint ‘sprints’ was unique, combining local and international expertise for a truly ‘home-grown’ solution’.

Enumerators with Goverment Task Force in Phalombe District.
Enumerators with Goverment Task Force in Phalombe District.© GIZ

Learning from challenges

Despite the great achievements to date by the Malawi Government and partners, it is also important to acknowledge the challenges in developing a large and comprehensive system such as the UBR. Creating initial buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders for a single shared system, and ensuring a common understanding of the vision and potential of the UBR have not always been easy. Technological and IT system challenges, as well as the often-tricky issues of access to and use of the data, data privacy and security, have all been part of the development process. These and other challenges have turned into important learning points for the further strengthening of the UBR system.

What does the future hold?

It is still early days in the development of the UBR but the system is increasingly seen as an important and exciting innovation – having recently won first prize in ‘Government Innovations’ in the ICT Association of Malawi competition.

Malawi is well on the way to making a shift in understanding from the old concept of ‘data for reporting’, to using data for multiple purposes including more targeted, aligned and integrated programme design, management and monitoring. The UBR will enable a more in-depth and tailored analysis of the socio-economic status of Malawian households and this, in turn, will attract new ‘customers’ from within and outside government. High level support from both parliament and the civil service have strengthened links to key government offices such as the National Statistics Office and National Registration Bureau. The UBR data may also prove useful for humanitarian and emergency response interventions, as a recent assessment has shown.

Innovations in the pipeline include electronic payments to households, an integrated M&E platform and a Geographic Information System, which will provide visualisation tools to show where the different social protection programmes are operating. These developments will create synergies and enable joined-up decision-making. We predict that interest will go far beyond Malawi’s borders – other countries can learn from Malawi’s experience and their unique UBR System.


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