Means versus Ends: Deconstructing the SDGs and the Role of Identification

Mariana Dahan
January 29, 2015

Mariana Dahan is the Coordinator of the ID4D Working Group at the World Bank.  

The post-2015 development agenda is being shaped as we speak. The United Nations has recently released a report that synthesizes the full range of inputs received from various stakeholders. These inputs, including ones from the World Bank Group, are a substantive contribution to the intergovernmental negotiations in the lead up to the September 2015 Summit that will officially launch the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda. But today, with 17 goals and 169 targets, the SDGs are a big mouthful for the global development community to chew on, let alone to digest. Some see a risk that they will be simply unimplementable. However the problem becomes a little more manageable if we reflect on the means towards the goals. Not all of the goals are unrelated. Measures towards some targets can open up new ways to achieve others.

Consider, for example, target 16.9: By 2030 provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.  These are actually two different, though related, targets as explained in the recent policy paper by the Center for Global Development.

Regardless of the modalities to achieve it, the recognition of legal identity, together with its associated rights, is becoming a priority for governments around the world. Although there is no one model for providing legal identity, the SDG would urge states to ensure that all have free or low-cost access to widely accepted, robust identity credentials.[1]

With legal identity, including name, nationality, recognized family relationships — one of the basic human rights set out in the Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child — target 16.9 can stand on its own merits.

Robust means of identification are also important for many other goals and targets in the SDG agenda. For example, goal 1.3: implement appropriate social protection systems…and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and vulnerable. Today, 870 million people living in extreme poverty still do not have access to any kind of social assistance program. The World Bank has supported the development of these programs in 122 countries and regions, committing $16 billion dollars for this purpose over the past seven years. But without a precise targeting and robust identification of the actual beneficiaries, the risks of leakages and fraud are simply too high.  Robust identification systems can reduce corruption and leakages that siphon off the funds intended to pay for transfers, pensions, and other entitlements. Thus they contribute to making government institutions more accountable and transparent.  

South Africa has been using biometric identification combined with smartcards or bank transfers for many years to underpin its extensive system of social transfers.  So has Pakistan, for support to internally displaced populations, poor women, through the BISP program and (see also goal 1.5) flood victims, including through the Watan card program.

Leaders worldwide have seen a new set of opportunities for modernizing their countries’ registration and identification systems, drawing on the ubiquity of new information and communication technologies (ICT) and innovative approaches to assign unique national IDs to individuals and businesses alike. As further examples, consider target 1.4: ensure that the poor and vulnerable have control over land and other forms of property, including financial, target 5a: give poor women equal access to economic resources including finance, and 5b: enhance the use of technology, in particular ICT to promote women’s empowerment. Opportunity International Bank safeguards the balances in its clients’ accounts by requiring that they be authenticated for transactions by fingerprinting – this makes it impossible for male relatives to seize control of their assets on the death of the husband, as is common in Malawi.  Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Opportunity’s clients are women.  More generally, it is difficult to ensure individual claims to property without identification. 

How about goal 12c: phase out harmful fuel subsidies?  One way to do this is to shift from price-based subsidies towards targeted individual transfers, but these are not practical unless recipients can be clearly and uniquely identified. Ongoing research on the use of India’s Aadhaar to underpin transfers that compensate users for the phase-out of LPG subsidies shows a substantial payoff, in the form of reduced demand. Accurate identification can also pay off for goal 17.7: strengthen domestic tax collection. Cross-referencing taxpayer and other data sets using Pakistan’s unique national identifier resulted in the identification of some 3.5 million potential taxpayers, a multiple of the approximate 700,000 who actually file taxes.  Political commitment to follow up on this was lacking, but it has not been so in other cases. Take for example Nigeria. Its Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System, for example, claims to have saved approximately US$67 million and eliminated over 43,000 “ghost workers” in the first phase alone. Some 17,000 fraudulent workers were later eliminated from the payroll of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria.  Similarly, Guinea-Bissau carried out a biometric census of civil servants that reportedly resulted in cutting 4,000 nonexistent workers from the public payroll.

And so the list goes on: safe and responsible migration and mobility (10.7); reduce costs of remittance transfer (10c); strengthen the capacity to fight terrorism and crime (16a), end preventable deaths of newborns (3.2 – at present weaknesses in registration systems limit in formation on numbers and causes of death in many countries).  These are only some of the goals for which accurate, modern identification systems can make a difference. 

Political will is central, and the SDGs – unwieldy as they may be – provide a useful reference point for accountability. But new approaches expand the horizon of what is possible, and should serve as a stimulus to development ambition.

Seizing these opportunities requires strong leadership, a supportive legal framework, mobilization of financial and human resources, and – critically – the trust of each country’s residents. Incentives, technology, foreign assistance, and reforms will all be critical in achieving tangible results. Equally important is donor coordination at the global, regional and national levels to ensure inclusive oversight and concerted global action.

The World Bank Group has recently established a multi-sectoral working group, called Identification for Development (ID4D), to address the issues around SDG target 16.9 and to help approach them in a coherent, integrated manner based on a shared understanding among donors, countries, and other stakeholders involved in this area. Currently, this working group is collaborating with UN technical teams and other inter-agency groups towards defining robust indicators to help monitor and measure progress on target 16.9 achievement by 2030.

[1] Dunning, Gelb, and Raghavan 2014.



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