Reconciling Human Rights and Anti-Colonial Struggles: Towards a Redistributive Regulation of Digital Social Security Programs

Serena Natile / Jun 30, 2024

This essay is part of a symposium on the promise and perils of human rights for governing digital platforms. Read more from the series here; new posts will appear between June 18 - June 30, 2024.

Digital technology is increasingly promoted as a tool for improving efficiency and transparency in the design and delivery of social security. However, the process of digitalization is embedded in historic and contemporary power relations that reproduce or exacerbate unequal access to social security programs, and can create new forms of vulnerability and value extraction. In this post, I unravel some of these power relations and interrogate whether human rights mechanisms can contribute to regulate digital technology towards the realization of social security as a fundamental right for all. I begin by providing an overview of the international debate on social security before going on to examine the narrative of digitalization and assessing the limits of the human rights discourse in this field.

The argument developed in this analysis is twofold: first, it shows how the main issue with the realization of social security as a fundamental right is the maldistribution of wealth enabled by international economic law and governance; and second, it shows how digitalization, far from being a quick fix for unequal access to social security, is itself embedded in global economic inequality. For this reason, human rights principles need to shape the governance of digital technology to serve the broader purpose of a just redistribution of global wealth.

The international debate on social security: From social insurance to social protection to digital social programs

Social security can be broadly defined as the necessity and public responsibility for governments to guarantee decent living standards and access for all people to essential resources and services, including food, water, sanitation, housing, healthcare, education, labor rights, support for sickness, disability, injury, unemployment, old age, and caring responsibilities. While the framing of social security as an international human right is uncontested, its realization across the world is controversial. Social security is generally considered a regulatory responsibility of the state, however states’ resources and measures for social security are also influenced by global dynamics such as colonial histories, processes of economic globalization, and international law and policies. These dynamics have affected the unequal distribution of wealth and power and the consequent unequal access to social security.

By the time of decolonisation in the 1950s–70s, European countries had well-established welfare states, some of them funded via resources extracted from colonies. However, discussions on building closer cooperation on what at the time was called social insurance were marginal compared to the more popular idea of economic integration (the creation of the European Economic Community is an example of this). The possibility to develop international cooperation on social security, including countries of the Global South and outside the asymmetrical relations of aid between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, was not even considered. Newly independent Global South states had to negotiate – with limited resources and from a disadvantaged position in the global economy – social security systems within the institutional frameworks imposed on them during colonialism, and according to the postcolonial rules of international law and development. One of the key demands of the anti-colonial movement of the 1960–70s, which resulted in campaigns for the establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO), was for a fair and just regulation of trade, finance, technology and ultimately for full economic sovereignty in order to be able to ensure social security for their peoples.

These demands were never realized, due to opposition from Western countries and particularly from the US, and a series of events such as the end of the Cold War and the petrodollar crisis paved the way for the neoliberal development project of the 1980s-90s. A key part of this project was the imposition on former colonized countries of structural adjustment policies (SAPs), that strongly affected such countries’ capacity to provide social security for their peoples. SAPs were packages of loans provided to countries of the Global South by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank that were conditional on their adoption of neoliberal measures. These conditionalities–such as to liberalize their economies by lowering barriers to foreign capital, to control inflation by reducing government spending and privatizing public services and state-owned industries, and the repayment of loans in US dollars–all reduced states’ resources for social security.

The negative impact of SAPs on social welfare, increasing long-term poverty, has been widely discussed and has often been compared with the more recent adoption of austerity measures in Western countries. However, interventions to address SAP’s consequences have been relegated to self-regulatory codes of conduct such as corporate social responsibility, aid, and philanthropy; soft laws including social objectives negotiated within the framework of the UN; and more recent initiatives on business and human rights. An example of a non-binding framework for social development is the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000 following the criticism of SAPs and replaced in 2015 by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, neither the MDGs nor the SDGs have challenged the functioning of the global economy with the purpose to contribute to a fair distribution of resources for social security, as demanded by the anti-colonial movement of the 1970s.

With the adoption of the MDGs, the debate on social security has changed towards the development buzzword ‘social protection,’ a mixture of schemes including social safety nets, social spending floors, and cash transfer programs targeting poverty reduction which usually impose conditionalities on recipients. Social protection schemes, which are also supported by international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, are often implemented via partnerships involving donors, development institutions, NGOs, and corporations and their philanthropic arms, creating institutional arrangements that assist or take over Global South states’ delivery of social security. This has resulted in the international debate on social security becoming increasingly detached from the need for a just regulation of labor, trade, investments, finance, taxation, and technology. Even the application of human rights discourse in this field tends to ‘act on the surface’, trying to mitigate wrongs rather than transforming structures, in this case the international economic system.

The digitalization of social security programs has amplified these contradictions. Far from being a neutral progress, digitalization evolved from information and communication technology (ICT) to digital platforms, a business model that allows different users to interact while producing data to the advantage of the platform owner. The expansion of digital platforms has been facilitated by Western states’ incentives for tech companies, unlimited liberalization of services on the global scale, intellectual property protection, and limited taxation and regulatory requirements for corporations–all rules that worked to the advantage of Western corporations. Anti-colonial demands to share and democratize technology for the benefit of all–as stated in the International Code of Conduct for the Transfer of Technology 1980, for instance–were dismissed similarly to other NIEO requests.

Instead, the international economic legal system enabled Western tech companies to control the global digital infrastructure and accumulate wealth, via profits and the extraction and marketization of data. Tech companies have often used part of this wealth to create ‘philanthrocapitalist’ foundations and support programs for social development to align with the SDGs. In this way, digital technology has become instrumental to global development and to the achievement of human rights, in a way that, again, does not challenge the functioning of the global economy, including the ownership and regulation of digital infrastructures.

Digital social security programs and the limitations of human rights

Since 2000, social security programs – both those provided nationally by governments and those delivered via partnerships between aid agencies, development institutions, and the private sector – have seen the increasing involvement of ICT and digital providers. The narrative of the digitalization of social security programs is based on improving transparency, efficiency, security, inclusivity, openness, integrity, and reducing costs in the long term. The digitalization agenda was pushed even further by COVID-19, when digitalized social assistance was promoted as a means for minimizing physical contact in the delivery of support.

Two considerations about this narrative are necessary. The first is that the logic of digitalization for social security or social protection in the Global South aims to improve these schemes without questioning dominant narratives of development and economic growth. The idea that digitalization brings efficiency and transparency is also in line with the IMF and World Bank’s idea of good governance, promoted as a key development conditionality since the 1990s. The second consideration is that digitalization necessarily requires the involvement of the private sector, often Western tech companies and their local partners. In the field of social security, this means that digital providers have the power to make decisions about access to basic resources and services without any democratic accountability and without any clear regulatory framework. The involvement of the private sector creates fragmented institutional arrangements in the management of social security funds and/or conditions, making accountability for the failure or harms they create very difficult to determine. This is particularly the case for social protection programs acting completely outside the purview of the state.

These concerns, advanced by civil society organizations and grassroots groups, have received limited attention in international policy-making. One of the main documents on the topic is the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights’ Report “Digital Welfare States and Human Rights” (hereinafter the Report), published in 2019, just before the pandemic. The Report – which builds on existing policy and research as well as submissions from governments, civil society, international organizations, academics, and individuals – discusses key issues in digital social security and advocates for the regulation of digital technologies to ensure compliance with human rights. These issues include the effects of digitalization on welfare budgets, the unscrutinized power of tech corporations, and the exploitation of a public interest – namely social security – for private profits.

Digitalization requires conspicuous investment and this money is likely to be taken from the welfare budgets, cutting resources, narrowing eligibility and benefits, and eliminating services. The cost of digitalization, particularly in the Global South, can be very high as states will need to rely on Western tech companies for the historical reasons explained above. In other words, the need to cover the cost of digitalization could reduce the overall resources for social security, while producing profits for corporations. For instance, the Report (para. 71) refers to how Aadhaar in India, now the world’s largest biometric identification system, has lacked a proper assessment of costs and benefits and an evaluation of how these are distributed between tech companies, states, and beneficiaries.

Moreover, the Report explains that tech corporations operate “in an almost human-rights free zone,” and that this is especially problematic when “the private sector is taking a leading role in designing, constructing and even operating significant parts of the digital welfare state” (para. 72). The actions of tech companies are driven by profit-making more than ensuring the right to social security, and the lack of a binding regulatory framework for their operations, particularly when they are supposedly acting in the public interest, means that it is very difficult to hold them accountable for any wrongdoing. The Report lists issues such as hidden fees, unfair deductions, discriminatory algorithmic decisions, errors that can render people unable to buy food and essentials, and stronger sanction regimes for even minor mistakes made by beneficiaries (who are framed as ‘applicants’ rather than right-holders). It also refers to forms of public-private surveillance, controlling mechanisms decided by states or donors such as intrusive conditionalities and behavior-modification goals, privacy violations including the sharing and publication of beneficiaries’ details without consent, recipients becoming the target of criminalization, stigma and shame if they do not (even mistakenly) comply with the requirements, and the overall exploitation of data.

These violations can be found at various levels both in the Global South and Global North, and combined with austerity measures and limited resources for social security can strongly affect the provision of this right. Among the different examples, the case of the payment processing company Net1 in South Africa is particularly emblematic (para. 19). South Africa has an expansive (non-contributory and means-tested) social grants system that covers about one third of the population. In 2012, the South Africa Social Security Agency contracted the company Cash Paymaster Services, a subsidiary of Net1, to deliver the grants. The beneficiaries were issued a MasterCard debit card with biometric functionality and a linked bank account by Net1 and Grindrod Bank. The system was praised by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (also an investor in Net1) as a model for digitally-enabled social protection. However, Net1 used recipients’ data to offer them microloans and recovered the debt from their social grants, undermining people’s ability to buy food and essentials. The Agency changed providers in 2018, but the entire process negatively affected a number of people, making them more vulnerable.

The Report calls for the need to regulate digital technology to ensure compliance with human rights and recommends that rather than ‘obsessing about fraud, cost savings, sanctions and market-driven definitions of efficiency, the starting point should be how welfare budgets could be transformed through technology’ to ensure a decent standard of living for everyone, and particularly for the vulnerable and disadvantaged and those who have been left behind or struggle to enter the labor market, considering these aims as ‘the real welfare state revolution’ (para. 84). However, while adding human rights considerations to the design and implementation of digital social security can prevent or address specific violations (such as privacy or discrimination), this would not be enough to challenge the structures that enable those violations.

For instance, over the years human rights campaigns have encouraged compliance with corporate social responsibility and business & human rights principles, but they have not managed to achieve the adoption of a binding Code to limit the power of tech corporations. The human rights narrative is often used to support the expansion of digitalization to provide opportunities, autonomy, and freedom for people excluded from the benefits of digital technology, but it has not been enough to justify the adoption of a binding Code for the Transfer of Technology to allow Global South countries to develop their domestic technological capabilities.

Digitalization cannot contribute to any ‘welfare state revolution’ unless it becomes part of a broader ‘revolutionary’ change of the current unequal economic order that has defined the development, purpose, and governance of digital technology. This change would require reparative and redistributive interventions for a just regulation of labor, trade, investments, finance, taxation, and technology, which should all be instrumental to the realization of a collective human right to social security. This right has to be intended not just as improving state provision, but as the entitlement of all humans to a rightful share of the world’s wealth to ensure social security for all. The realization of this collective right requires us to revisit, and build upon, the demands of the anticolonial campaigns of the 1970s and of the many grassroots movements that drew on them and have been demanding economic-social-environmental justice ever since.

While the links between global economic inequality, human rights, and anticolonial campaigns have often been examined by Third World approaches to international law (TWAIL) and critical development scholars, the role of digital technology within these debates needs more discussion in policy settings. For now, we can learn from grassroots activists (and from Rosa Luxemburg’s idea of revolution) about the need to use human rights to expose and obtain recognition of specific violations in the present, but only as a means to bring about a broader long-term revolutionary change in the future.


Serena Natile
Serena Natile is an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick, School of Law, UK. She is the author of The Exclusionary Politics of Digital Financial Inclusion: Mobile Money, Gendered Walls (Routledge, 2020) and leads the project Transnational Social Security Law in The Digital Age: Towards a...