Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

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Alan Gelb and Julia Clark.

The “identity gap” is large, but it’s closing.

Over the past 10 years, developing countries from Afghanistan to Zambia—and the donors that support them—have begun to focus on identity systems. Some have sought to create or extend national identification to cover large populations that previously could not exercise basic rights or access services due to a lack of official documentation. Others have reformed government and NGO programs by creating robust identification to improve quality, increase accessibility and eliminate fraud.

At the core of these efforts is a revolution in biometric identification technology that developing countries are using to leapfrog over inefficient legacy systems in the rich world (much as an embrace of mobile phones has bypassed the need for land lines). But while the mobile revolution has excited the popular imagination around the world, the biometrics revolution has largely escaped notice. So far.

In our new CGD working paper,Identification for Development: The Biometrics Revolution, we survey 160 cases where the technology has been used in low-middle income countries. These range from national-scale initiatives to improve general identification, to specific applications in a variety of sectors, including elections, health services, social transfers, financial access, and emergency relief. To date, we conservatively estimate that some 1.2 billion people in the developing world have already received identification through one of these programs—and the number will multiply rapidly in the years ahead.

In some cases, the technology has been remarkably successful from a developmental perspective; eliminating ghost workers in Nigeria, improving TB treatment in India and delivering funds in difficult conditions. In others, it has been costly and ineffective, and poor planning has led to a proliferation of overlapping identity systems in a number of countries and communities. Concerns related to privacy and exclusion remain, though we believe that these can be largely mitigated with smart planning and appropriate safeguards. In most cases, success is contingent on human, rather than technological, performance.

Biometric IDs are not only here to stay, they are arguably the next big thing. Whether that works for poor people in the developing world will depend on how well these systems are designed and rolled out, and what safeguards are in place to prevent abuses. More rigorous inquiry and accessible performance data is needed in order to better evaluate the effectiveness of identification for development programs.

We hope the research in our paper will provide the basis for a lively, informed discussion on how to make the most of this promising new technology while minimizing missteps. To that end, we will be hosting a CGD event on February 12 that will begin with a brief presentation of the key findings and include two discussion panels with experts with a wide range of perspectives. We hope to see you there.