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Alan Gelb

This show was originally posted on January 11, 2011

In developed countries, official identification systems are a fact of life, providing the foundation for a myriad of transactions including elections, pension payments, and the legal system. Without functional ID systems, citizens of many developing countries miss out on the benefits of official identification. On this week’s Wonkcast, I am joined by CGD senior fellow Alan Gelb who has been researching the potential for new biometric technology, such as computerized finger printing and iris scans, to help poor countries leapfrog the long and complicated process of setting up ID systems.

In our conversation, Alan explains the depth of the problem in the developing world. “In most rich countries there are already identity systems that work more or less well,” he says. “In many poor countries, not only is there no consistent identity system but at least half of the people don’t have records of birth at all. They simply don’t exist.”

While privacy concerns are slowing the spread of biometric ID systems in high-income countries, Alan says research has found that most rural poor in the developing world welcome the chance to obtain an official identity and show little reluctance about being finger printed or sitting in front of a specialized camera for an scan.

After last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan, Alan wrote an op/ed for The Hill calling on the United States to support direct biometric smartcard payments to help victims rebuild. This week, the State Department announced it would put $190 million into the program.

Alan explains how biometric technology can help ensure that cash payments reach those who need them most, even in the difficult conditions of places like Pakistan and Haiti. We also discuss the wider implications of biometric technology, how it can reduce aid leakage, how having an ID can improve citizens access to critical benefits, and how biometric programs may evolve and grow into national identification systems in in coming years.

Listen to this week’s Wonkcast to learn more about the exciting potential of this technology and read Alan’s case for using biometrics in Haiti in his blog post, Fingerprint Haiti Now: Biometrics in Haiti, One Year Later.

Have something to add? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below, or send me an email. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.

My thanks to Wren Elhai for his production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and to Will McKitterick for drafting this blog post.