Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity


I recently presented an overview of this work at one of CGD’s biweekly Research-in-Progress (RIP) staff meetings; colleagues urged me to share my thinking about this and the slides via this blog post.

Iris scans, fingerprints and other biometrics are no longer only material for spy movies or crime thrillers.  Biometric identification is beginning to be used in transfer programs in the developing world to bring benefits to the poor.  But the issue is broader -- enabling citizens to establish an official identity is a crucial part of the development process.  Identity is required for so many purposes – registering property, banking and credit, voter registration, health care, drivers’ licenses and numerous other services.  Even today, half of all births in developing countries are not registered.  A lack of ID can be a major obstacle, and also renders citizens more vulnerable to corrupt officials.

I am currently researching the use of biometrics in developing countries, and have looked at a number of cases and seen more in process.  What type of biometrics is used and how these ID systems are implemented differs across programs.  A few countries are rolling out nationwide identification programs, but most biometric ID systems serve programmatic needs, such as demobilization and resettlement grants, pension payments and drought relief.  Some programs also increase access to banking.

In Afghanistan/Pakistan iris scans were used for over 200,000 returning refugees to ensure they only received one repatriation payment. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo the World Bank has used iris scans for demobilization grants, proving that this technology can operate well outside the lab, and in rough conditions. South Africa has been using fingerprints in the delivery of pension and other grants for two decades; each year 5 million grants are delivered through this program in Kwa-Zulu Natal.  Andhra Pradesh has been paying employment guarantee stipends and pensions with the help of fingerprinting.  India is rolling out the largest biometric ID project ever undertaken; each citizen will soon be registering both fingerprints and iris scans.  And as India comes online, biometrics technology will rapidly become cheaper with scale and new entry. Click here for more cases.

Biometrics can provide huge savings in cash transfer programs.  India estimates around 25% of social payment program funds are lost due to leakage. Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys for several countries in Africa indicate high leakages as funds are transferred down administrative chains.  Biometrics can eliminate duplicate payments and payments to the deceased, as in Andhra Pradesh.  Approaches using biometrics could do wonders for reducing leakage from a wide range of programs.

Despite these benefits, I am aware, and concerned, about negative potential aspects.  The technology is still fairly costly, though prices are plummeting quickly.  Using biometrics may undermine the “human” approach to development and government.  And there is a fear that biometric identification may impede on civil liberties.  From my research, I believe the benefits will outweigh the negatives, especially in countries where governments are less functional.   But I still believe we need to be careful as we proceed.

What should be our next step in this area?  How should the wider development community approach this rapidly-changing field?  Should donors seek to use biometrics more actively, and encourage their use in developing countries?  How to coordinate approaches for maximum synergies?

I’m very interested in any comments or additional information or cases you may know of.  Please feel free to post in the comment section or contact me or my research assistant, Caroline Decker