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Serbia: World Bank-funded digital welfare system exacerbating poverty, especially for Roma and people with disabilities

Poverty-stricken and marginalised communities in Serbia are being pushed further into poverty as an automated welfare delivery system, funded by the World Bank, strips them of social assistance, said Amnesty International in a report published today.

The report, Trapped by Automation: Poverty and Discrimination in Serbia’s Welfare State, documents how many people, particularly Roma and those with disabilities, are unable pay bills, put food on the table, and are struggling to make ends meet after being removed from social assistance support following the introduction of the Social Card registry.

Rather than make benefit payments fairer, thousands of people who rely on these payments as their only source of income have been locked out of the social safety net and cut off from essential assistance. Already marginalised groups, have suffered the sharpest consequences of this automated system, leading to disproportionate impact on their access to benefits programmes.

Damini Satija, Head of the Algorithmic Accountability Lab at Amnesty Tech

“Serbia’s Social Card registry proves what we have long known: that imposing automation in social assistance systems can exacerbate inequality, entrench or scale discrimination, and pose a dire risk to human rights,” said Damini Satija, Head of the Algorithmic Accountability Lab at Amnesty Tech.

“Rather than make benefit payments fairer, thousands of people who rely on these payments as their only source of income have been locked out of the social safety net and cut off from essential assistance. Already marginalised groups, have suffered the sharpest consequences of this automated system, leading to disproportionate impact on their access to benefits programmes.”

Lives reduced to data points

Launched in 2022 and aimed at strengthening the country’s social protection system, the Social Card registry introduced automation, comprising a data-driven system, into the process of determining eligibility for social assistance. But instead of its purported objective of making the existing social protection system fairer, the Social Card registry has had the opposite effect in many cases. In the year and a half since its implementation, some people living in extreme poverty have either completely lost or had their social assistance reduced, leaving them in severe financial distress and without access to the most basic needs.

The Social Card registry pulls data, such as income, age, household composition, health status, employment status and other data , from pre-existing government databases to build a socio-economic profile of individuals applying for social assistance, and flags cases for review by social workers—known as a semi-automated decision-making process. The accuracy of data in the source databases plays a huge role in ensuring fair application outcomes and continued receipt of social assistance.

But Amnesty International’s research shows that this data is often woefully low in quality, especially for individuals from marginalised groups whose documentation and records in government systems are often, for structural reasons, not up to date. The reliance on this inaccurate data drawn from databases that are not regularly updated or data that ignores the realities of an individual’s complex economic situation, leads to an increased likelihood of mistakes, removing people from receiving benefits they have the right to access.

Secondly, the semi-automated layer has reduced the role of social workers in verifying the data and documents of applicants. Previously, social workers would conduct field visits and interviews to ascertain the complex realities of people’s lives, however, the Social Card registry has reduced the economic realities of people living off informal workstreams and with hugely varying personal circumstances to, often outdated, data points.

In its report, Amnesty International documented the case of Mirjana, who was disqualified from receiving social assistance after a local human rights organization helped to cover the cost of a funeral for her daughter, who died unexpectedly in 2023.

The organization’s donation of 20,000 Serbian dinars (around 170 euro) into Mirjana’s bank account was instantly flagged by the Social Card registry as income that disqualified her from social assistance. Practically overnight, Mirjana, who had been surviving on modest welfare benefits and living in a social housing complex, lost her assistance.

Within two months of losing her daughter, Mirjana found herself in a prolonged and uncertain bureaucratic battle to reinstate her lost benefits.

Trapped in a bureaucratic maze

Amnesty International found that the lengthy, complicated appeals process for individuals who had been stripped of social assistance in some cases served to discourage them from filing complaints, effectively obstructing their right to remedy. In cases where recipient’s ’s data might be false or out of date, the onus is on the recipients to prove otherwise and correct these errors. This is often difficult, if not impossible, within the 15-day timeframe for appeals.

People were unable to get an explanation from social workers as to why their assistance was reduced or removed altogether, forcing them down a bureaucratic maze, and having to chase information from various government offices to determine where the errors originated and attempt to fix them. Once removed from social assistance an individual or household has to wait three months before being eligible to reapply for support regardless of whether there was a change in circumstances or their financial need. This leaves already desperate people destitute.

“The Social Card registry has compounded the existing gaps of Serbia’s social security system and revealed the very real dangers of introducing automation without any protections against human rights violations in place. Without careful attention, data-driven automation systems can easily become mechanisms of exclusion, targeting, and oppression,” said Damini Satija.

The World Bank supported the development of the Social Card registry, by providing technical guidance as well as financial assistance. It is part of the World Bank’s broader programme supporting the establishment of such registries in the field of social protection. It has sponsored or promoted similar data-driven social registry databases elsewhere, including in Jordan, Lebanon, Haiti, Nigeria, Morocco and Angola, as well as in neighbouring Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and similar exclusionary impacts have been documented elsewhere too.

“The World Bank and governments—including in Serbia– must conduct robust human rights risk assessments both during the design and implementation of such programmes, and ensure system design that eliminates potential threats to human rights. Crucially if the human rights risks of a system cannot be prevented then this system is not fit for purpose and should not be rolled out,” said Damini Satija.