How AI excludes needy from social relief grants

Published Jun 18, 2024


A short film called Mind the People is taking a closer look at the systems used by the government to administer the R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant and its human rights implications.

The story by South African researcher, film-maker, and Mozilla Africa Mradi Grant awardee, Duduetsang Mokoele, highlights a “broken and opaque artificial intelligence (AI) system” which is allegedly preventing many vulnerable South Africans from receiving the social security benefits they desperately need.

The Africa Mradi Research Grants are a new funding stream for researchers examining AI on the continent. Africa Mradi is Mozilla’s initiative to build movements and support trustworthy AI across Eastern and Southern Africa.

The seven grant-winning projects this year, including Mind the People, explore the impact of AI on diverse communities across the continent and also the needs of these communities.

In another project, HER Internet, a feminist digital rights organisation based in Uganda through their research “The impact of Algorithms on LGBTQ organising in Uganda”, aims to examine how algorithms, especially on social networking platforms, impact the advocacy and organising efforts of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities at individual and collective levels.

This research considers the restrictive legal, policy, and social environments for the community — a trend found in a significant number of countries in the region.

Millions of South Africans rely on the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) to afford food, soap, electricity, school supplies, and other necessities through grant funding like the SRD.

Mokoele in the film tries to show how the SRD algorithm allegedly declines qualified recipients, and the “near-impossible” nature of seeking appeals or accountability.

Mokoele also speaks with Elizabeth Raiters, the human rights activist leading South Africa’s #PayTheGrants campaign.

“Mind the People” travels from Eldorado Park to Mountain View and beyond, to highlight how critical these grants are, and the consequences when an “unjust algorithm” denies them.

She adds that the platform and algorithm are also English language-only, shutting out speakers of indigenous languages.

“In theory, the government’s social security algorithm is supposed to help South Africa’s most marginalised communities and lift them out of extreme poverty. In practice, the algorithm is doing just the opposite: reinforcing power and economic disparities in the world’s most unequal country,” said Mokoele.

In the words of one interviewee: “The ones who suffer the most do not get the grants.”

Meanwhile Sassa said it implemented the grant according to the legislation.

“At present the law allows for a proxy means test to determine eligibility criteria. Proxy means tests are acknowledged as not being as accurate as normal means tests, however given the circumstances, it has allowed for over 8 million people to access this grant in less than 6 months. A full means test, for eg. the CSG means test took 15 years to roll out to 7 million people.

“SASSA is aware of the dissatisfaction that many people have with the low level of the means test threshold and the low value of the grant; however is only able to implement the grant within the current legislative framework,” said Sassa.

The social security agency said everyone who had been declined had “the right to appeal” and people could direct their complaints to their customer care or use the Sassa centralised email for assistance at [email protected]

The film is currently available to the public on Youtube.

Cape Times