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This post is joint with Caroline Decker

The application of biometrics to promote development and democratization is proceeding rapidly in the developing world—and largely below the radar of the media and development experts in high-income countries. Monitoring press releases on biometrics with the help of a news Google alert, I’ve been struck by the astonishing spread of this technology for use in voter registration in developing countries... Nepal, Zambia, Ghana, to name just three and ongoing cases.

Most recently, Gabon announced plans to introduce a biometric voter roll in advance of the next election:  the opposition parties have been urging this for years.  The election is due in December 2011, but the President is to seek a court ruling on its deferral to 2012 to allow for the orderly introduction of biometrics.  The proposal has been supported by a group of NGOs and associations, as well as the Secretary General of one of the main opposition parties.  Bolivia provides an example of what can be done to increase political inclusion.  Over 5 million people were enrolled in 2009 within a period of 76 days by some 3,000 enrolment stations, increasing the voter roll by an astonishing 2 million people.  The main drivers were the opposition parties, which were reluctant to contest an election with the old, discredited, roll.  The exercise was very successful, in the assessment by the Carter Center.

These are great investments in strengthening democratic governance, but they are not cheap, especially if they have to be done hastily.  Bolivia’s cost some $75 million, about $15 per voter.  Gabon’s estimate for a fast-track registration is 90 million Euros; a slower exercise taking about a year would save a third of the cost. Even allowing for the sparseness of the population 60 million Euros is still high. Considering that Gabon’s population is only 1.5 million the cost works out to more than $100 per voter.

Voter registration is too valuable to be confined to elections.  I believe such systems should also be used to set the basis for a permanent system of citizen identification which could support a wide range of public and private services. Many cases, including in Nigeria, Pakistan, Mexico, South Africa, Malawi, India and elsewhere, show how a biometrics can underpin an identification system that can help to improve the functioning of the economy.  Financial access can be broadened and a range of government payments can be rationalized.  Eliminating payments to ghost workers, pensioners and claimants can probably easily pay for the registration costs in a few years; the technology opens up the possibility of dramatically reducing corruption in developmental transfer programs. (For more information see my paper on biometrics in cash-transfer programs). Payment costs will also fall over time as biometric identification is fully integrated into electronic payment mechanisms.

Here is an area in which advances in political and economic participation can go hand in hand.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.