CGD in the News

Biometrics disagreement leads to food aid suspension in Yemen (Devex)

June 24, 2019

From the article:

An impasse over use of biometric data led the World Food Programme to partially suspend its delivery of food aid in warn-torn Yemen last week, raising questions about the use of such technology in humanitarian contexts.

The Houthis, who control the capital of Sanaa where WFP had to suspend its operations, were opposed to using biometric data from food aid recipients, claiming it was against Yemeni law for the United Nations food aid organization to control the data. WFP, which seeks to provide 12 million people — nearly half of the total Yemeni population — with food aid this year, said it had negotiated but was unable to reach an agreement over the issue with the Houthis.

“There are all these people in need, but if your judgement is that without using a system like this nothing is going to get through to them anyway, then it’s not an answer to say ‘don’t use the system,’” said Alan Gelb, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “The correct thing to do is not to provide aid.”

But Gelb said the situation is more complicated if some aid is making it to the correct recipients.

“Let’s say half of the aid that you’re providing is getting through to the population,” Gelb said. “If you refuse to provide the aid, it means it will have an impact on the people you’re trying to help, but you would have to accept the fact that half of the stuff is being diverted and stolen.”

Humanitarian organizations must keep a range of questions about biometrics in mind, Gelb said, when considering using the technology to monitor their aid distribution. If they do consider using the technology, they must be sure they can collect the appropriate biometrics data — whether it be fingerprints, iris scans or facial recognition — in all areas where the population lives. People who need assistance could otherwise be excluded from receiving benefits, he said, because rolling out biometric systems can be logistically challenging and time-consuming.

Organizations must also consider the type of data they are collecting, where and how long it will be stored, and who will have access to it. These sensitivities are particularly heightened during crisis situations: Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh expressed reservations over data privacy, for example. They staged a hunger strike over the UN Refugee Agency’s attempts to create a biometric registration in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in 2018.

“One issue that arises about biometrics is, ‘who holds that information?’ Is there a guarantee that those information is not turned back to authorities in Myanmar?” Gelb said. “If they are turned back to people in Myanmar, then there is an automatic record that people can be verified against in the future. So you have some of the same issues with refugees and populations in very fraught situations. They’re concerned that this kind of information — which they cannot change, they cannot run away from — might be turned over to some entity that is going to hurt them.”