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This is a joint post with Caroline Decker.

Less than a month until the anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital, 1.3 million still live in tents, clean water remains an issue with cholera rapidly spreading, and millions of cubic meters of debris litter the streets, hampering rebuilding efforts. But Haiti was hardly in great shape before the earthquake. Despite years of assistance, 80% of its population was living under the poverty line, 2 out of 3 Haitians did not have a formal job, and infrastructure was minimal.

The international development community certainly needs to focus on rebuilding, but they can't forget that they are also building. Clean water and permanent housing should be a priority, but improving infrastructure, governance, and access to social and financial services should not be forgotten. But to date, only 15% of the $8.75 billion for assistance originally pledged has been disbursed, partly because of concerns over leakages and accountability.

Some have said that this earthquake has provided Haiti (and the world) with a window of opportunity for change. Establishing a secure, biometric-based identity system, initially based on fingerprints, could be a key component of that change. Biometrics may seem complicated for a country needing so many basics, but it could help facilitate and integrate a range of urgent projects, tighten a number of aid channels, and allow for development efforts to finally pick up speed. It can also help to provide a foundation for long-term development. Biometrics is not new to Haiti. Close to 4 million citizens were biometrically registered to vote for the 2006 presidential election and a central database was created.

Cash transfer programs have become commonplace in post-disaster recovery for rebuilding and re-capitalizing households and firms. Such programs provide direct aid without the bureaucratic delays and transparency concerns of other methods. They also create demand to jump-start the economy and put the power of recovery in the hands of the people-- giving them the resources to pull themselves out of poverty and towards reconstruction and recovery. Leakage is always a major concern; donors need to ensure individuals only collect once and that funds are distributed as intended. A secure identity system could be used to prevent multiple payments, "ghost" recipients, and other forms of leakage.

Transfer programs in Malawi, India and elsewhere have successfully used biometric identification to manage transfers with very little leakage. The same database could be used for cash-for-work programs to ensure that funds are not being dissipated to "ghost workers". Such programs are run by USAID and the Red Cross to clear debris and restore roads; as in India's rural programs these could become a basis for longer-term building efforts, which would also create employment and inject money into the local economy. Braced by a biometric registration system, cash transfers and cash-for-work programs could provide an efficient and secure avenue for development.

Many of those targeted by these projects are believe to be registered in the national voter registry. And if not, registering those not in the system would not be difficult. A single station can enroll 150 people in a day, which means 100 stations could register all of the people living in tent camps in just 3 months. The remaining population of about 9 million people could be registered with 100 stations in as little as 20 months. Returning to its original function, the database could also be used to create a secure voter registry and provide more transparency during elections. Even if this is not complete by the time of the election scheduled for February 2011, this will not be Haiti's last election.

As this biometric database expands, the national ID system could assist with longer-term development. Before the earthquake only 15% of the population was banked; reliable official IDs would enable financial institutions to widen banking access. As in South Africa and elsewhere, transfer recipients would have the option to save in mobile bank accounts, widening access to credit and services such as insurance. Accurate identification could facilitate conditional cash transfers for vaccinations, school attendance, and micro-loans to build businesses.

Haiti may not be an easy case, but biometric systems have worked in very difficult conditions, including the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and resettlement grants to refugees in Afghanistan. They could make a real difference to governance and development in Haiti. Nearly a year after the disaster, innovative solutions are needed ensure a greater impact for relief efforts in their second year. Such a program would require a leader and the full involvement of the government. Unfortunately, no one has stepped forward yet. And Haiti continues to wait.

Disclaimer

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.