June 16

Catherine Highet

Identity is Everything: Creating a Digital ID Future

When Qia was born, his mother never registered his birth. Without a birth certificate, he didn’t officially exist. He has never been able to possess formal identification like a driver’s license or a passport. With no formal identification, Qia is excluded from accessing services ubiquitous in the Western world like credit cards, social insurance numbers and bank accounts. Qia’s story might sound like one from a developing country, yet Qia wasn’t born in an emerging market – Qia was born in Tucson, Arizona. He has lived most of his life in British Columbia, Canada.

Qia’s experience is an uncommon phenomenon in the developed world. If you are reading this, chances are that identity has never been a serious concern for you. When I was born, my parents were verified as my parents and I was issued a birth certificate. This birth certificate was then used to register me with the local doctor, school, post office and bank. With time, other forms of ID and biometrics were layered over this – a driver’s license, credit card and passport, eventually allowing me to travel, sign rental agreements, vote and access free healthcare. There are now multiple layers verifying that I am indeed a 33-year-old woman who was born in New Zealand.

This is not the case for many in the developing world, where over 2 billion people are without an official ID. Throughout South Asia, nearly 630,000 people remain unregistered. Sub-Saharan Africa is a close second where nearly 438,000 are unregistered. In these regions, Qia’s story is much more common. Only 56.7 percent of births were registered in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015. In South Asia, 65.6 percent of births were registered.

Without identification, many in the developing world cannot access services vital to robust economic and political lives, such as bank accounts. In fact, nearly 40 percent of the world’s adult population lacks a bank account. Without a bank account, individuals can face incredible obstacles in accessing financial services that alleviate household stress, especially during lean months. And during one of the more politically vibrant years across the developing world, many cannot  cast a ballot without an ID.

Almost every country tries to provide IDs to its citizens, generally in paper form, but they are often met with a plethora of issues around duplication, data security and interoperability with other systems. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the high cost of identification, political realities on the ground, the logistics of identifying enormous populations in low-resource environments, competing subsets of data and instability make it difficult for countries to issue complete identification. As a result, they depend on paper-based identification that serves as ID for a specific sub segment purpose, such as voter registration. And while some pieces of paper registry or data might exist for people, like a partial birth registry or school enrollment, the data set is not sufficient to provide an indisputable identity.

Digital identity can solve this problem. Digital identity, or “digital ID” can store the uniquely identifiable information of an entity in a computerized system. That entity can be a person, organization or a product. In the case of a person, a digital ID can be personal and biometric information, such as fingerprints or an iris or face scan. This information is held on a central database, which may or may not be government operated, or housed on block chain technology to ensure security. The biometric data can either overlay or take the place of an absent paper ID system.

If every country had a robust ID system in place, organizations such as UNHCR could deliver cash assistance products directly to specific refugees. Governments could pay salaries and benefits without a middle man taking a slice of the payments, as was the case in Afghanistan. Women and girls at the bottom of the pyramid could receive crucial services, such as healthcare and education.

Successful digital identity initiatives require participation from both the public and private sectors. It is crucial that ongoing research and development of a digital identity platform keep up with changing technologies: the technological elements of the platform, the biometric equipment, data storage, security and specialized software, must be as efficient and up to date as possible. A digital identity platform must be secure from hackers and identity theft. Government is not always equipped to play this role, nor should it. Developing the most effective biometric captures requires a level of research and development not affordable to many governments. Furthermore, frequently changing governments may not be sufficiently stable to continually monitor and update a digital identity platform. The protection of a population’s identities must be treated with the utmost attention, and we must apply the market’s premium solutions to safeguarding this information.

If identification is so important, what has stopped the aid sector from using digital ID in development programming? When the aid sector talks about digital identity, they largely refer to a digital system that collects and compiles key pieces of verified data – including biometrics – to recognize individuals and their actions. However, identity informatics in emerging markets are often fragmented. The Ministry of Education might collect school enrollment by paper form while the electoral register enrolls voters, but these data streams rarely match up. Connecting these subsets of information requires joining them to an overarching system, which is what India’s Aadhaar program, a national biometric database, provides.

In the drive to eradicate poverty, provision of identity might seem trivial, but identity underpins the effective delivery of goods and services, like food or cash assistance, used to eradicate poverty. Moreover, with a formal identity, people can take full advantage of economic and political opportunities offered to them by their governments, and further raise themselves, and their countries, out of poverty. Digital identity offers an unprecedented opportunity to level the playing field for each unique person on this planet.


Top image: A woman’s identification is verified so that she can receive food at a World Food Program distribution in Colombia. Photo courtesy of USAID.

Homepage image by Daniel Friedman/via Flickr 


Catherine Highet is a Technical Advisor with FHI 360’s mSTAR project, working to expand awareness and create solutions around digital identity for the world’s poor.



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