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Jordan: 'Faulty algorithm' denying welfare support to people in need

Arbitrary factors such as water consumption and the age of cars restrict access to a World Bank-financed cash programme, according to HRW
Jordanian youths use a hand cart in Amman's Wahdat district on 10 January 2021 (AFP)
Jordanian youths use a hand cart in Amman's Wahdat district on 10 January 2021 (AFP)

Jordanians in need are not receiving vital financial support due to a World Bank-financed cash transfer programme that relies on unreliable data and a "faulty algorithm" to allocate funds, according to a new report.

While the scheme is intended to tackle poverty it is in fact fuelling social tensions by using arbitrary factors - such as water consumption and the age of family cars - to determine whether people have a right to social security, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 74-page report published on Tuesday.

Jordan's cash transfer programme, Takaful, applies an algorithm that uses 57 socio-economic indicators to estimate people's income and wealth and then distributes funds to the households this deems to be the poorest. 

The report said the programme is "undermined by errors, discriminatory policies, and stereotypes about poverty".

"The World Bank should phase out its financing of poverty-targeting algorithms and prioritise projects that advance universal social protection," Amos Toh, senior technology and human rights researcher at HRW, told Middle East Eye.

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"That is, programmes that ensure everyone receives income support at key moments throughout their lives, such as old age, unemployment, or sickness." 

'The car destroyed us. We use it to transport water and for other needs. But sometimes we don’t have the money to fill it up with diesel'

- Tafilah resident

Under the current system, factors such as owning a car less than five years old, or a business worth over 3,000 dinars ($4,200) automatically disqualify a household from funds.

Families who consume large amounts of water and electricity can also be less likely to qualify for support.

For the report, HRW interviewed 36 individuals or families who had applied to use Takaful and other assistance programmes, as well as government officials, and civil society groups. 

One of the residents interviewed in the report, from the town of Tafilah in southern Jordan, said her family's ownership of a car played a role in the denial of funds. 

“The car destroyed us,” she said. “We use it to transport water and for other needs. But sometimes we don’t have the money to fill it up with diesel.”

'Not reaching enough people'

The owner of a tailoring shop in downtown Amman said his business could be the reason why he did not receive support, despite the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic had forced him to take out 12,000 dinars ($16,900) in loans to cover his basic needs. 

In addition, the algorithm favours larger households for funds but assesses this based on the number of Jordanian citizens in the family.

This could discriminate against Jordanian women married to non-Jordanian men, as they are unable to pass on their citizenship to their spouse or children, says HRW.

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The ways in which the government collects financial data have also been prone to errors, the report added. For example, the programme did not allow people to declare living expenses that exceeded their income, interviewees said. 

In response to the report, the World Bank said the poverty targeting methods it uses helped to facilitate the delivery of funds but were "not substitutions" for interactions between people and institutions. 

"[Takaful] has proven to be amongst the most redistributive and cost-effective poverty reduction programs currently active in Jordan," it added. 

But Toh questioned the programme's ability to reach those most in need. 

"Takaful only distributes regular cash transfers to about 20 percent of households living under the poverty line most recently announced by the government," he said. 

"Both the [International Labour Organization] and the [International Monetary Fund] have raised concerns that Takaful is not reaching nearly enough people and families that are struggling with poverty."

Jordan is currently facing a cost of living crisis and rising youth unemployment. 

In December, the country was hit by rare protests triggered by taxi and truck drivers striking over rising fuel prices.

In the financial year 2021-2022, the average annual income in Jordan - which is considered a middle-income country - ranged from $4,096 to $12,695. 

The poverty rate rose to 24 percent in 2021 due to the pandemic, according to the World Bank.

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