Formal identification is a prerequisite for development in the modern world. The inability to authenticate oneself when interacting with the state—or with private entities such as banks—inhibits access to basic rights and services, including education, formal employment, financial services, voting, social transfers, and more. Unfortunately, underdocumentation is pervasive in the developing world. Civil registration systems are often absent or cover only a fraction of the population. In contrast, people in rich countries are almost all well identified from birth. This “identity gap” is increasingly recognized as not only a symptom of underdevelopment but as a factor that makes development more difficult and less inclusive.
Many programs now aim to provide individuals in poor countries with more robust official identity, often in the context of the delivery of particular services. Many of these programs use digital biometric identification technology that distinguish physical or behavioral features, such as fingerprints or iris scans, to help “leapfrog” traditional paper-based identity systems. The technology cannot do everything, but recent advances enable it to be used far more accurately than previously, to provide identification (who are you?) and authentication (are you who you claim to be?). Technology costs are falling rapidly, and it is now possible to ensure unique identity in populations of at least several hundred million with little error.
This paper surveys 160 cases where biometric identification has been used for economic, political, and social purposes in developing countries. About half of these cases have been supported by donors. Recognizing the need for more rigorous assessments and more open data on performance, the paper draws some conclusions about identification and development and the use of biometric technology. Some cases suggest large returns to its use, with potential gains in inclusion, efficiency, and governance. In others, costly technology has been ineffective or, combined with the formalization of identity, has increased the risk of exclusion.
One primary conclusion is that identification should be considered as a component of development policy, rather than being seen as just a cost on a program-by-program basis. Within such a strategic framework, countries and donors can work to close the identification gap, and in the process improve both inclusion and the efficiency of many programs.