Emerging Technologies

How digital identification can help boost development

Mariana Dahan
Coordinator, Identification for Development
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Emerging Technologies

Lack of personal official identification (ID) prevents people from fully exercising their rights and isolates them socially and economically — voting, legal action, receipt of government benefits, banking, and borrowing are all virtually closed off. The widespread lack of ID in developing countries is a critical stumbling block to national growth.

Digital IDs, combined with the already extensive use of mobile devices in the developing world, offers a transformative solution to the problem — a simple means for capturing personal ID that can reach far more people, as well as and new, more efficient ways for government and business to reach and serve the population.

Given the importance of the topic, the 2016 World Development Report (WDR) includes a Spotlight on Digital Identity, which has been developed by the authors in collaboration with various stakeholders within and outside the World Bank Group.

The 2016 WDR — the World Bank’s major analytical publication — aims to advance our understanding of how economic growth, equity of opportunity and public service delivery are being affected by rapid diffusion of digital technologies. This section in 2016 WDR focuses on critical aspects, such as benefits to developing countries and implementation arrangements for Digital ID programs.

On June 23-24, 2015 the WDR Operationalization Workshop — which brought together development practitioners, ICT specialists, donors, academics, policy makers, and representatives of the private sector — hosted a session on Digital IDs for Development. The session aimed to translate many of the 2016 WDR findings and policy suggestions into actions for development.

Specifically, this session was an occasion to go over the key elements of the Digital IDs for Development program of the World Bank and acknowledge the support of the Government of France to this agenda, with an overview of knowledge reports and contribution to project design, including Digital IDs and Identification for Development (ID4D) program implementation in client countries. The World Bank’s senior management also revealed the group’s approach to Digital IDs and ID4D program roll-out and sought feedback from workshop participants.

What is the World Bank’s role?
The Digital IDs for Development program — led by the ICT group — is under the broader umbrella of the World-Bank wide Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative. We see Digital IDs as an enabler and a platform for delivering the services provided by all sectors involved in the ID4D agenda (thus we are sector-agnostic). It leverages digital identities (IDs) as part of a unified system to better deliver services and benefits to people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged. The World Bank envisions the scope of its Digital IDs for Development program as follows:

  • Finance Digital ID initiatives in identified countries to support the delivery of sector-specific programs — including financial services, social protection, and health care — in ways that conform to an overall standards-based architecture;
  • Establish policies to secure personal data and ensure data privacy and promote the use of open and interoperable technology; and
  • Catalyze a global network of digital ID experts to assist countries and help them build capacity in designing, deploying, monitoring, and maintaining digital ID systems.

How can the international donor community and major stakeholders support countries in advancing this agenda?
The overall effort on identification of the World Bank Group is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 (“By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration”).

Donor funding can support the operationalization of the Digital IDs for Development program (and the overall ID4D strategy), helping to establish common standards, piloted at regional or sub-regional level. The Africa region is a specific priority.

Our earlier research showed that in sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of the population in some countries is without official ID — but more than two-thirds of residents in the region have a mobile phone subscription. Over the past few years, digital IDs have become a game-changer, overcoming the barriers to distributing official ID nationwide and opening the way to digital service delivery as a key development tool.

Robust Digital ID systems, if developed in a highly interoperable and scalable manner, can produce huge savings for citizens, government and businesses. Conversely, disparate initiatives and siloed investments in Digital ID systems are likely to be wasteful and duplicative, detracting from the far-reaching public and private sector implications of universal Digital IDs.

Pooled approaches and federated ID systems at the regional or sub-regional level can also help strengthening the value proposition of Digital IDs programs. Trust in data security will be critical to achieving tangible results. Harnessing the power of Digital IDs systems will require strong political will and leadership, foreign assistance matched with local incentives, and a supportive institutional environment.

This article was first published by The World Bank’s IC4D blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Mariana Dahan is a Coordinator, Identification for Development (ID4D) Working Group. Randeep Sudan is the Sector Manager for Information and Communication Technologies at the World Bank, based in Washington DC.

Image: A Somali man browses the internet on his mobile phone at a beach along the Indian Ocean coastline in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, January 10, 2014. REUTERS/Feisal Omar.

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