Presenting our Partners: Using social vouchers for inclusion programmes 

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With experience in the implementation of social support programmes in more than 20 countries, ESN partner, Edenred,  tells us about the use of social vouchers for the implementation of welfare support programmes notably through the support of targeted spending.

Targeted spending and social welfare in support of socially inclusive recovery 

Covid-19 responses have had a significant social and economic impact. As societies move towards recovery, more than ever, the challenge is to revive the economy in a socially inclusive way that does not leave anyone behind. With this in mind, it is essential to support citizens with their essential spending, which can also drive a strong sustainable recovery in food and hospitality, travel and tourism, agriculture or transport’s sectors.

Public authorities can use social vouchers to provide support for their citizens as an alternative to in-kind or cash allowances, even more through digital solutions which are safer, more impactful and easier to deploy. This system can prevent any misuse, ensure that funds are allocated for what they were conceived for, and gives freedom to beneficiaries to choose the product or service that betters suit their needs, thus preventing stigmatisation.

As the goods and services are accessible within a dedicated network, this provides economic opportunities to local businesses, especially smaller ones. This makes it possible for public authorities to combine social welfare support (increasing affordability of goods and services for people in need) with targeted economic measures that support the local economy and notably the most affected sectors by the Covid-19 crisis.

Easily adaptable and deployable solutions

Social vouchers have now transitioned from paper to cards and other electronic solutions such as mobile phone apps or QR codes, making them a fast, easily adaptable, and deployable tool, particularly in situations of emergency.

The following are examples of measures taken to address the effects of the health emergency brought about by Covid-19 through the use of social vouchers.

  • Meal vouchers for low-income families in the United Kingdom: In the lock-down context, the British government replaced the unavailable free school meals for children in low income families with a voucher solution. In one week, one million children received a £15 weekly allowance through a QR code voucher to purchase food from food stores.
  • Meal vouchers for citizens in greatest needs in Italy: The Civil Protection Service has provided municipalities with €400 million to be spent on food provision during the Covid-19 emergency. Hundreds of them have adopted meal vouchers to ensure the allocation of food.
  • Childcare vouchers for workers providing essential services in Italy: Italian local authorities have also been using vouchers for the provision of childcare services for children whose parents are home-office workers, workers from essential economic sectors, and healthcare professionals.
  • Holiday vouchers for low-income households in France: two of the biggest regions in the country have decided to finance holiday vouchers for low income households as a means to revive the local tourism industry while providing welfare support for families who have difficulties in financing their holidays. For instance, the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region will provide holiday vouchers amounting to €10 million. The Grand-Est region will provide 10,000 vouchers to families amounting to €5 million in total.
  • Using vouchers for the implementation of the European Fund for the Most Deprived (FEAD): Amendments to the FEAD regulation enable the buying of protective equipment for those delivering aid. Also, food and basic material assistance can be delivered through vouchers, lowering risks of infection. Introduced as a mechanism for the current crisis, e-vouchers will most likely remain as a means of implementation, as already in 2018, the Commission proposed their permanent introduction for the new FEAD programming period starting in 2021.

Meet our speakers: Christiaan van Veen

Christiaan van Veen is the Director of the Digital Welfare States and Human Rights Project at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, which is based at New York University School of Law. Van Veen’s work focuses on the impact of state digitalization on human rights, including in the area of social protection and assistance. Van Veen has extensive experience in the field of international human rights law. He previously served as a special advisor on new technologies and human rights to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Van Veen has also been a consultant for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He has undertaken numerous human rights fact-finding missions to countries around the world, including Chile, Romania, Mauritania, China, Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

  1. What are the latest trends in the digitalization of welfare states?

Governments in the Global North have been experimenting with the use of digital technologies and data in the context of their welfare states for decades now. Earlier digitalization efforts in the welfare state focused mostly on streamlining internal processes, such as information management. We then saw a trend toward moving existing government services online and the introduction and updating of government websites and portals, often under the heading of ‘e-government’. In recent years, there is much talk of, and many related government reports and strategies about, ‘digital government’ and ‘digital transformation’. What we are witnessing is that digital technologies are becoming integral to key stages and functions of social protection and assistance programs, from enrollment and registration, to decision-making, communication with beneficiaries, enforcement and investigation of risks and needs, as well as actual service delivery and so on. Governments are also increasingly aiming to connect separate ‘data siloes’ and make use of large quantities of digital data available in the private sector. More recently, we also see that governments are increasingly experimenting with the use of Artificial Intelligence tools, including in the welfare state, although these are still relatively early days.

  1. What are the three biggest challenges in the digitalization of welfare states in terms of respect of ethics and human rights?

My work relates to the risks and opportunities of digital welfare states from the perspective of human rights. Three major challenges from the perspective of human rights relate to democratic oversight, transparency and accountability. First, technological innovation in social protection systems is still often perceived as technocratic fixes with overwhelmingly positive or neutral implications for the human rights of individuals. However, digitalization is driven by political preferences and has unequal impacts on individuals, including in relation to their rights. Second, and relatedly, many of the digitalization projects within government, including in the welfare area, happen under the political radar and with limited involvement of legislatures, media and the general public. Oftentimes, the technology itself is difficult to understand or otherwise shielded from scrutiny. Third, this means that those responsible for digital innovation in social protection and assistance are not often held to account, even when rights violations may be at stake. Because many of these developments happen away from the spotlight, or sometimes even explicitly in secret, it is exceedingly difficult for individuals who have been affected to realize their right to a remedy when their rights and interests are harmed.

  1. How can we ensure the digitalization of social services remains ethical?

Let me first comment on the framing of this question. Because much technological innovation comes from the private sector, there is has been fierce resistance from this corner against any regulation of digital technologies. Big Tech and other parts of the technology industry have, once their products and services came under more intense scrutiny, proposed that self-regulation, guidelines and ethical values regulate the technologies they produce. In short, the fact that ‘ethics’ are often invoked in discussions about digitalization is an outcome of this corporate resistance to regulation and not a neutral framing.

Slowly, for instance in the recent White Paper on Artificial Intelligence by the European Commission, we see a shift in the debate towards regulating technology via law and to underline their human rights rather than their ethical impact. That makes a difference because human rights are legal norms and can be invoked before national and international courts and other accountability mechanisms. Ethics, on the other hand, are not legal norms, often ill-defined and mostly without attached accountability mechanisms. I am not against ethical digitalization, obviously, but more interested in helping to ensure that technology compluies with public regulation and ensuring that technology does not contribute to human rights violations.

To ensure that the digitalization of social services complies with existing human rights law, we need to be aware of the challenges involving democratic oversight, transparency and accountability mentioned above. There appears to be a gradual shift in that regard, with increasing attention from parliaments, media, other oversight bodies and the general public for the fact that individual rights are at stake. An important step is that, from political decision-making to implementation, human rights law needs to be taken into account. There is an important procedural dimension here. An important step to make sure human rights are taken into account is to make sure that those individuals and groups who are affected by a technological innovation are consulted every step of the way, from the political decision-making stage to the actual implementation.

New tool for large-scale identification of COVID-19 risk groups

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ESN partner Raisoft, in collaboration with interRAIhas developed and digitalised a tool to identify and assess particularly vulnerable social groups during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The interRAI COVID-19 Vulnerability Screener (CVS) is a quick, convenient tool to identify persons who may be especially vulnerable. The CVS consists of a self-assessment survey that adults and people with disabilities can use to identify the presence of COVID-19 symptoms, frailty, and major co-morbidities that may lead to increased mortality risks related to COVID-19.

This new CVS can be carried out either by a health care professional or by a lay person, over the phone or in-personA self-administered version of the CVS is also in development.

CVS can be used to:

  • Identify persons who need urgent care for emergency health concerns
  • Contact public health authorities for COVID-19 testing
  • Prioritise persons who require a full assessment by a clinician
  • Monitor risks related to underlying medical issues, functional problems, distress mood, or social isolation.

The tool will soon be offered to national healthcare providers and professionals with responsibility for public health. InterRAI has engaged collaborators in Canada, South Africa and Europe to begin using the CVS in primary care, geriatric services, and community care programmes to reach out to vulnerable persons living in the community.

More detailed information about the CVS and how it works can be found at this link.

European Social Services Conference postponed to 2021

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Taking into account the impact that Covid-19 is having on the organisation of the 28th European Social Services Conference planned in Hamburg on 8 -10 July 2020 and particularly considering that large events and social gatherings have been banned in Germany until 31 August 2020, it is with great regret that we have to postpone the Conference to 30 June – 2 July 2021.

However, the conference’s theme ‘Transforming community care’ is more relevant than ever in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis on health and social services and local communities across Europe. We are very happy to confirm that the Hamburg government and the German federal ministry will continue to support ESN as key partners for the conference.

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