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Imagine that a government employee holding an unfamiliar device and a laptop offers to scan your iris and create for you a unique identification record. Would you agree? For hundreds of millions of people in the developing world, the answer is unequivocally “yes!” My guests on this Wonkcast are among the world’s leading experts on the burgeoning field of biometric identification and its role in development. Senior fellow Alan Gelb and policy analyst Julia Clark are the authors of a new CGD working paper, Identification for Development: The Biometrics Revolution, the first global survey of the development applications of a potentially transformative new technology. They tell me that biometric identification systems could be the next big thing in development, similar to microcredit and mobile phones in the far-reaching ability to transform poor people’s lives.

Little noticed until now except by those directly involved, the biometric revolution is already underway. Alan and Julia have identified 160 biometric programs in the developing world at the local, organizational, state, or national levels. Together these have provided ID to about a billion people. Biometrics take a variety of forms—iris scans, fingerprints, even face scans—and are being used to establish identities for many different purposes: elections, health care, payroll, government services, and more. The largest and best known program is India’s Unique ID program, or UID, which currently covers about a quarter of a billion people and is growing at the rate of about one million new identifications each day. Isn’t this all just a little bit creepy? What about privacy and the fear that “Big Brother” governments will use universal ID to exert control over citizens’ lives? Julia acknowledges as much. “As a Westerner, I thought of identification as this big government, top-down thing that could be a little bit scary. So when starting this project, I really had to step back and think about what identification really is” she says. “I thought about how citizens and governments relate to one another through identification.” People who have identification, such as a driver’s license or social security card, frequently take it for granted, Alan explains. In fact, having identification opens doors—figuratively as well as literally. “There are a lot of people in poor countries who are marginalized because they have no official identity. With no official identity, you can’t access government services; you really can’t participate in a normal economy,” Alan says. “So once you realize that ID is necessary, the question becomes what kind of ID you should have. And if one is looking for an ID which is robust, with which you can be reasonably sure that other people can’t pretend to be you, that’s where biometric ID comes in.” In Haiti, for example, post-earthquake reconstruction might have been much more successful if the survivors had quickly been issued biometric ID and then been given direct transfers to help rebuild their homes and businesses. This was the approach taken in Pakistan following the 2010 floods. “They have a program of delivering reconstruction funding to families through smart cards and you know exactly who’s received the money – you can trace it from the origin right down to the individual family. So it’s a very different model,” Alan says. This technology is not necessarily appropriate for all developing countries – in some, Julia said, there already are ID programs that work just fine. In others, like Nigeria, there are many overlapping ID programs that need to be reconciled to account for duplicates. We end with a discussion of risks and how these can be addressed.