The inclusion of “legal identity for all” as target 16.9 of the SDGs has propelled identity provision and ID programs to the forefront of development discourse. Effective identification is increasingly seen as a crucial step towards the achievement of several other development goals

In fact, developing countries have been implementing new ID programs at a breakneck speed: the World Bank’s ID4D dataset shows that 26 low- and middle-income countries have started the implementation of a national ID program between 2010 and 2015 (see Figure 1 below). In parallel, biometric technology used for unique identification has been evolving rapidly both in terms of accuracy and (lower) costs.

To provide a (relatively) comprehensive picture of these rapidly changing trends, fast-evolving systems, and mushrooming applications is no easy feat, but we have tried to assemble a rough overview of those ID- and development-related topics that struck us as most relevant in the form of a Preliminary Discussion Paper. This paper serves as a background document for an upcoming CGD book on identification, biometric technology, and development that will offer both an overview of existing ID solutions and guidance for the effective implementation of ID systems.

Figure 1. The evolution of civil registration and identification systems, 1960-2015


The paper begins by briefly discussing the history of ID systems and clarifying the concepts of ‘legal’ and ‘official’ identity. It provides an assessment of who has official identity in the global context, using coverage data for birth registration, voter IDs, and national ID programs. It then explores the different institutional arrangements governing ID systems and the different levels of integration between civil registration, national ID registers, and program registers (electoral, social protection, etc.) in a number of countries. Four ‘frontier’ cases of digital ID are examined in more detail:

  • India’s Aadhaar unique identification program;
  • Estonia’s e-ID system, including its pioneering e-residency program;  
  • The UK’s ‘federated approach’ to digital ID, GOV.UK Verify
  • Privately provided, ‘crowd-sourced’ identities as facilitated by online social- and professional networks.

A separate section illustrates how biometrics have contributed to more effective service delivery in developing countries, drawing on existing CGD publications on the role of biometric technology in cash transfers and its broader contributions to identifying and authenticating individuals in developing countries. Finally, the paper notes the risks and challenges associated with the implementation of ID systems such as data privacy and data protection, exclusion and discrimination, and the pitfalls of wasteful deployment.

This work is very much still in progress. We have started revising the outline of the preliminary discussion paper in preparation of turning it into a book and are in the process of identifying the gaps we still need to fill. We invite you to send us your comments so that we can publish a much-improved final product in a few months’ time.