Q1: What digital identity issue(s) have you changed your mind about? (Why? What does this mean for your work, and for global development?)
Everybody knows that my heart is “digital.” However...when it comes to digital ID in the developing countries where we work, some of the conversations we are having here in New York about self-sovereign identity, distributed ledger, data agencies and blockchain are still far away from the reality of people we are trying to serve. At least for now.
At the Word Bank, most of our work focuses on the poorest countries, particularly on serving the poorest 40% of the population. In some of our client countries, there is still limited Internet availability, spotted mobile coverage, low levels of smartphone ownership and low literacy rates.
However, it’s good for all of us to be a part of today’s conversation in order to understand the latest technology developments and trends already happening in the developed world, so that we can assess their applicability for our clients in Africa and elsewhere. In addition, with GDPR becoming a reality and multiple conversations around privacy aspects of personal data, we all need to ensure that various aspects of personal data protection are well reflected in our advice to governments on how to build Good ID systems.
Q2: What does “Good ID” mean to you? What do you think “Good ID” is?
There's a lot of conversations happening right now about what Good ID is. In the last decade, I have worked in over 20 countries, primarily with government officials. It has become very clear to me that one size does not fit all. It is good to have a set of tools and “standard” best practice advice – such as “follow the Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development” – in our back pockets. But when it comes to implementing Good ID, the context of the country really matters. However, there are a few attributes of Good ID, which I think are important in any context:
- When the ID systems are designed, one should think about the people first. We are now working in a number of countries on the end-user research in collaboration with the government. We bring in qualitative researchers to spend some time in the field with the people, including those living in rural areas, to understand their concerns, preferences and obstacles in obtaining an ID or a birth certificate. The findings are used to inform governments’ efforts in rolling out new ID related initiatives and improving services delivery.
- Another aspect of Good ID is all about data protection and privacy.... Our ID4D team is undertaking a number of efforts to raise awareness and find solutions that work in the context of developing countries. For example, earlier this year we ran “Mission Billion” Innovation challenge which was designed to crowdsource innovative solutions to strengthen data privacy in digital identification systems and empower users to have greater control of their personal data. There are a handful of countries that have embraced a ‘privacy-by-design’ approach, however, there is still a lot of room to innovate and implement such solutions in developing countries. But this does not discourage me, because it will only take the first few successful ones to become a reality for others to follow. We all need to be saying “Have you thought about personal data privacy, before you do XYZ?” In this case being intentional matters.
- It’s not only about having an ID – it also has to be widely accepted and facilitate access to services. Having a plastic card in your hand may not necessarily mean a better service (or “Good” ID for that matter).
- For example, I was just on a field visit in one of our client countries. The government has a special program for young mothers to encourage them to bring kids in for immunization, health check-ups and nutrition counselling in exchange for a safety-net payment. These women come out of the doctor’s office and proceed to the data officer, who re-types the info from the plastic card to confirm that doctor’s visit took place. From talking with authorities, we learned that about half of the women cannot get payments because their identity could not be verified, due to simple human errors that occur when re-typing.
- The same goes for accessing financial services. I was in a client country and I ran out of cash (no credit cards were accepted there). I went to the bank to make a simple withdrawal. I was asked to show two forms of ID which were scanned. I was then taken to a separate office for an interview. What if I were someone, without two forms of ID? I would not have been able to open a bank account or withdraw cash.
- Good ID needs to be widely accepted and recognized both by both the public and private sector, including across borders. We also need to do a bit more thinking around modalities for ID recognition across borders. For some countries, one could use the national ID to travel across a border. However, using your ID in another country's context, is a very different issue. One wants to be able to open a bank account, start a business, buy a piece of land. Even if the law allows, in most cases now it remains quite complicated to prove your identity in a foreign country context. There is a lot of work to do in thinking through this regional interoperability of national IDs to allow people to travel and conduct economic activity in another country.
Q3. What do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about in the context of “Good ID”?
What I'm pessimistic about is the “ID divide” which can occur at a country level as well as between countries. And I am also concerned that in some countries, the greater formalization of IDs may result in the exclusion of certain ethnic groups or individual people.
I am optimistic about the future of mobile-based digital ID. With more and more countries reaching one hundred percent cell phone network coverage and ever-increasing rates of cell phone ownership due to dropping costs - the future of ID may as well be mobile.
Some of the smartphones are already as low as 40-50 US dollars, which makes them more affordable to more people around the world. This allows multiple layers of the population to access services offered digitally and via mobile platforms.
Many of our client countries are starting to think through mobile-based solutions which allow for digital authentication in the context of service delivery. The Mobile ID concept is similar to what we are used to in an “analogue” world. I think of Mobile ID as a security screening at the office building or airport – they verify your identity, check your bags and you may be asked a few questions. Once you are “good-to-go” you can access any room in the building or proceed to your gate at the airport. Once you verify your identity on mobile device, you are able to access multiple e-services.I'm very optimistic about the role of ID in empowering women.
For example, according to GSMA, the users in at least 150 countries are required to prove their identity in order to register and/or activate their prepaid SIM cards. The more women have an ID, the more able they are to obtain their own mobile phone. This opens up multiple opportunities, including for financial inclusion through a variety of mobile money solutions.
Also, I think the more women see the benefits of having an official proof of identity, the more moms will make an effort to register the birth of their children. In some of our client countries, the birth registration rates remain disturbingly low. Not having a birth certificate could create difficulties to obtain ID when the kids become adults. There are about 100 million children under the age of five in Africa alone, whose birth is not registered, making birth registration a top priority.
I'm a mom myself, so I always think about the children and how we can make women’s lives easier, as in the vast majority of cases they are the primary caregiver for their children. In cases where the government sets up special programs to support malnutrition or vaccination programs, a woman needs to have an ID to qualify for the associated social safety net payments. So when women have an officially recognized ID, it can indirectly impact the health of their children, with positive outcomes from generation to generation. That's why I'm very excited about this empowerment aspect of Good ID for women, but also long term effect on children.