Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How to Use Digital Identity for Better Development


An estimated 1.5 billion people do not have a government issued and recognized proof of their legal identity. Over 10 million people in the world, with millions of children, are stateless. Migrants are expected to increase significantly in the next 5 years, due to civil strife, climate change, and changing economic landscapes.

To prepare for this global migration, governments must have the legal, technical, and political capacity to issue identification to people coming into their state borders who have none and coordinate across borders to recognize other national IDs. A legal identity is often required for essential government services (health, education, social safety net, etc.) and access to financial services.

With this context in mind, thought leaders in digital identities met in Washington, DC at a recent Technology Salon to discuss, How Can We Use Digital IDs for Better Development? in a conversation that included:

What are countries doing around ID now?

Pakistan has issued Pak-Identity cards and India has issued Aadhaar, biometric, digital IDs to around 1 billion of its people. This foundational model has created a platform on which the private sector to can build. Estonia’s e-Estonia program is advanced enough to allow for the complete management of profile information and city service completely online. Whether functional or foundational, working with multilateral donors and private companies, countries are exploring longer-term solutions to uniquely identify and serve their citizens and residents.

What’s coming soon?

Connecting birth certificates to bodies isn’t happening yet, but will soon through biometrically linking birth certificates. NEC corporation has just developed a technology which allows fingerprint scanning for newborns for the first time, enabling them to be biometrically linked to their parents — this typically starts from around five or six years, as per India’s Aadhaar program.

The private sector is working with development organizations and governments to test blockchain-based ID solutions, with firms such as BanQu and Aid:Tech exploring the many applications of the technology in providing secure verification and authorization of identity, including pharma supply chain tracking and food voucher distribution.

What are the outstanding issues and challenges?

In this field’s nascent stages there are still many questions around different financing options, the appropriate roles of the public and private entities, and global interoperability to name some key difficulties.

Underpinning all of this, is the often lacking capacity or willingness in participating governments, and the lack of national infrastructure, in many cases regarding power and connectivity but perhaps also extending into trust and user agency. Significant learnings around data privacy and security issues still need to take place; this area is likely to continue to demand scrutiny as the role of technology in identity is further defined.

What are government and development actors doing to move this issue forward?

Identity challenges can’t be addressed through just one entity. A multi-stakeholder approach is needed to make progress. The World Bank’s ID4D group is convening several international actors to develop a set of principles on the best practices of establishing and maintaining a digital identity system. It is envisaged that these principles will provide the basis for a set of ISO standards to further guide states on implementation. Future convenings from a DC working group, to next year’s RightsCon and ID4Africa events are in the works – we need to continue to communicate and work on principles, which can contextualize and inform further iterations of these and other guiding documents.

What is the next set of actions?

There is much already taking place in this space – events are being convened, research is being undertaken and partnerships are being forged, but more investment is needed. This not a problem that can be solved by any one actor – coordination and cooperation will be paramount to any successful implementation. If we truly care about making the invisible visible, we need to acknowledge the complex nature of the task and involve the all of the necessary ecosystem partners in creating sustainable identity solutions.

By Katie Highet and Shailee Adinolfi at FHI 360.


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