Target 16.9 of the Global Goals is ‘by 2030 provide legal identity for all including birth registration’. This is critical, but our experience over the last seven years has convinced us that there is something even more fundamental, a unique digital identity for all.
If the world is serious about a new framework for sustainable development, one that guarantees every person dignity, access to basic social services, as well as the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity and empowerment, then a unique digital identity has to be a foundational building block.
A digital ID system capable of validating each individual would not only guarantee access to basic social services for all, but could also function as a platform for holistic inclusion and innovation, and a key tool in the fight against corruption. In India today, more than a billion people, a sixth of humanity, are already benefiting from such a system.
Would a digital identity really enable inclusion?
For the voiceless millions, a digital proof of identity that is recognized by the ‘system’ in which the odds are stacked against you, is in itself empowering. Having a secure means of being identified offers a new realm of possibilities that was previously hard for them to access.
If linked with a country’s welfare system, a digital ID system can ‘fix the leaky pipe of service delivery’ that is a burden for every developing country. The benefits for both citizens and the governments are huge. India’s Aadhaar example shows that targeting can improve and the government can prevent significant distribution losses.
Everything from healthcare and food subsidies to emergency management and job placement systems have the potential to be transformed by a cost-effective digital ID system.
From an inclusion perspective, the promise of a digital identity is simple but powerful: government payments, for example, can reach the right person, in the full amount, on time, and at their doorstop. Biometric data is unique, so it can be used to eliminate both ‘duplicates’ (a person getting benefits multiple times) and ‘fakes’ (benefits being taken in the name of a non-existent or fictitious person), meaning that only the rightly entitled person gets the benefit or service. It can also reduce the stress of accessing benefits as accounts can be opened using the digital ID as an electronic identify verification tool, and direct payments can to be made to an individual’s account, which can then be redeemed locally using biometric authentication. By reducing the dependency on the web of intermediaries usually involved in delivering payments and public services, corruption is also significantly hindered.
For the government, the gains are multifarious. Not only is it more successful in reaching the intended target population, but it is also able to reduce fiscal leakages. It is estimated that through better targeting of benefits enabled by Aadhaar, India could save up billions of dollars. A digital system would also allow a government complete transparency of its fund’s flow.
A platform for private sector innovation
Digital ID systems could also be a tremendous platform for new innovations. New apps could be developed and built on to the basic system by both the public and private sector to fulfill a huge range of objectives. New products could also be created to support the functionality of the main system, such as smartphones with iris scanners that can authenticate identities – this is actually already happening. Everything from healthcare and food subsidies to emergency management and job placement systems have the potential to be transformed by a cost-effective digital ID system.
But is this achievable on a global level?
The convergence of four trends – near-universal mobile phone penetration, the maturing of biometric technology, the decreasing price of smartphones, and the exponential increases in cheap and computing power and storage –suggest that digital ID is an idea whose time has come. India’s Aadhaar example shows that such a system can be created, implemented, and effective at scale. The system and its applications have been thoroughly tested and debugged in India, meaning the system is ready for rapid replication.
A unique digital identity system has the potential to be the world’s largest service delivery, anti-corruption, inclusion and innovation platform, all at once. At a time when there is growing skepticism about the ability of governments to deliver, it has the potential of redeeming the compact between government and citizens.
To learn more about the Big Bets Initiative, launched by Dalberg, and the other 16 Big Bets, visit www.bigbetinitiative.com or follow the discussion on Twitter using #BigBets2030.