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August 14, 2019

Inclusive and Trusted Digital ID Can Unlock Opportunities for the World’s Most Vulnerable

Cash transfer payment Sierra Leone. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank 

Juan and his family fled their home during Peru’s 1995 insurgency. Like many other Peruvians, they left behind all of their possessions, including their IDs and other documents. Without an ID, Juan—along with 3 million other Peruvians whose civil registration records were lost or destroyed during this period—was unable to enroll in school or access basic social services.

Mariam, a cross border trader from Uganda, struggled to earn a livelihood because of the difficulty she faced in crossing the border to buy and sell goods in Kenya. Without the necessary IDs, she could not pass through regular border crossings and was forced to travel long distances in dangerous areas that left her vulnerable to theft and exploitation.

In India, Shanti’s livelihood depended on wages earned through MNREGA (India’s rural employment guarantee program) and a pension for her and her disabled husband. Years ago, a postman would deliver this cash to any household member he found. Sometimes, she did not receive the full amount because a relative claimed her money. Even when she did receive it, Shanti did not have a secure way to save her money because she did not have a bank account. Opening a bank account required a government-issued ID, which Shanti and many women like her did not have.

The invisible billion

Within modern societies—where people often interact with others they do not personally know—the ability to provide trusted proof of your identity is essential to daily life. The type of IDs that are needed for basic transactions vary from country to country, but in general birth certificates, national IDs, and similar documents, such as passports and drivers’ licenses, tend to be among the most common IDs or credentials used for official purposes.

"IDs are taken for granted by those who have them. But lack of identification creates barriers for each individual affected and for the countries they live in."
Makhtar Diop
World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure

However, an estimated 1 billion people worldwide do not have such basic ID credentials—including as many as 1 in 4 children and youth whose births have never been registered—and many more have IDs that cannot be trusted because they are poor quality or cannot be reliably verified. One estimate—by the McKinsey Global Institute—is that

The majority of the ‘invisible billion’ live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. They are typically members of the poorest and most vulnerable groups. Women are disproportionately less likely to have official proof of identity. , according to the ID4D-Findex survey. Furthermore, refugees, stateless persons, people with disabilities, and people living in rural and remote areas often face the greatest hurdles to obtaining official IDs.


Source: World Bank. 2018. Global ID Coverage by the Numbers: Insights from the ID4D-Findex Survey (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group. 

This invisibility has significant implications for a range of development outcomes that depend on delivering services to people or on them being able to access services. Without a secure and trusted way to prove their identity, people like Juan, Mariam and Shanti will often find themselves unable to access critical healthcare and social services, enroll in school, open a bank account, obtain a mobile phone, get a job, vote in an election, or register a business in the formal sector—along with other basic services, rights, and opportunities that would empower them to improve their lives.

“IDs are taken for granted by those who have them. But lack of identification creates barriers for each individual affected and for the countries they live in,” said Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure.

Empowering people with access to identification

Given the critical role of identification for development, the United Nations (UN) Member States have adopted Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 16.9: “to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030. Identification is also a key enabler of many other SDG goals and targets, such as financial and economic inclusion, social protection, healthcare and education, gender equality, child protection, agriculture, good governance, and safe and orderly migration.

Inclusive and trusted digital ID systems can also strengthen the transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness of governance and the delivery of public services and programs. They can help the public sector reduce fraud and leakage in government-to-person (G2P) transfers, facilitate new modes of service delivery, and increase overall administrative efficiency. Being able to reliably and easily verify a person’s identity is also critical for private sector development. Digital ID systems can help companies reduce operating costs associated with regulatory compliance (e.g., electronic know your customer—eKYC), widen customer bases, generate new markets, and foster a business-friendly environment more broadly.

Responding to changing needs and working towards ‘Good ID’ to maximize impact

As societies and economies become more complex, interconnected, and dynamic—and as the formalization, scale and digitalization of public programs increases—so does the need to be able to prove and verify who is who in an accurate and reliable manner. Countries and communities have rapidly progressed from informal, localized identification approaches based on personal connections to country-wide identification systems (e.g., national IDs), often supported by digital technologies.  This has enabled more convenient and more secure in-person and remote transactions, paving the way to access opportunities in the digital economy.


Original Source: Gelb A., and Diofasi, A. 2018. Identification Revolution: Can Digital ID be Harnessed for Development? Washington, DC: Brookings. 

The World Bank Group and its partners are committed to helping countries build inclusive and trusted ID and civil registration systems. In 2014,  the World Bank Group launched the Identification for Development (ID4D) Initiative to leverage expertise from different sectors and form a coherent response to this fundamental challenge. The World Bank Group also has mobilized more than $1 billion to support civil registration and ID-related projects in more than 45 countries and is working closely with partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Australian Government, Omidyar Network, the UK Government, other development partners and the private sector.

In Morocco, ID4D is supporting a World Bank project financing the design and implementation of a new digital ID and National Population Registry (NPR). The new digital ID and NPR will underpin efforts to reform the country’s social safety net system and to introduce presence-less, paper-less and cash-less transactions. As part of its engagement, the Bank has helped facilitate knowledge exchanges between Morocco and India to learn about India’s digital ID system (Aadhaar) and the broader India Stack, including adapting these experiences to Morocco’s context. Morocco is also pioneering the use of open source software for the National Population Registry by adopting the Modular Open Source Identification Platform (MOSIP) as its core technology solution.

As countries invest significant resources to close the identification gap and meet the requirements of identity in the digital age, they have an unparalleled opportunity to build next-generation ID systems that put people and privacy at the center—i.e., “good” ID systems. This includes ID systems that are non-exclusionary, protect personal information, provide people with greater control over their data, and respond to the needs of the population and different public and private sector institutions. By ensuring the accuracy and integrity of data over time and embracing open standards and interoperability, the next generation of ID systems can also improve system utility, sustainability, and adaptability to an ever-changing technology landscape.

Building good ID systems requires purposeful design and implementation choices, as embodied in the 10 Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development. These principles were developed through a consultative process coordinated by the World Bank Group and the Center for Global Development in 2017. They have now been endorsed by 25 organizations, including the UN and international organizations, non-governmental organizations, development partners, and private-sector associations. By working to apply these principles, the World Bank Group—as well as our client countries and development partners—can help ensure that ID systems are people-centric and fit-for-purpose in the digital age.

Digital ID trends: Balancing the opportunities and risks and utilizing technology responsibly

For example, digitized databases of records—compared to physical ledgers stored in a local office—make it much easier to verify a person’s records remotely (including through automation), creating efficiencies for service delivery and allowing ID agencies to replace credentials and records that have been lost, stolen, or destroyed.

Digital authentication mechanisms facilitate automated transactions that are more secure and reliable than manual authentication (i.e., visually comparing a person presenting an ID to their photo) and can reduce the amount of personal information revealed in a transaction (e.g., attribute-based credentials). The use of automated biometric recognition (e.g., using fingerprints or iris scans) can help ensure that identities are unique (i.e., that people cannot enroll multiple times) and provide a convenient, password-free method of authentication.

However, while digital technology can increase privacy and security in some ways, it can also increase many of the risks associated with collecting and managing personal data. When databases are digitized, the risk and scale of breaches and identity theft are also elevated. In addition to potential privacy violations, the digitization of identification can also create new barriers to access and inclusion. Certain populations—e.g., manual laborers with worn fingerprints, the elderly, or persons with disabilities—may have difficulty enrolling in or using ID systems that rely on certain types of biometrics, which can lead to exclusion if no alternative options are in place. The use of biometrics also creates a special set of data protection risks, which need to be carefully studied and comprehensively mitigated in each application of this technology. Similarly, digital ID systems that rely on technologies that are not consistently or universally available in the population (e.g., internet connections, email, mobile phones), can also exacerbate the digital divide.

Ensuring data protection, inclusion, and user rights are therefore fundamental to the success of an ID system in the digital era. This requires both comprehensive legal and regulatory frameworks to enable ID systems and provide safeguards. It also requires a privacy-and-security-by-design approach that bakes technical, organizational, and management controls into the design of the system—from the beginning. Furthermore, early and ongoing consultation and communication with the public and civil society can help ensure that ID systems are designed with people in mind and implemented in an inclusive and responsible way.

In order to balance the opportunities and address associated risks, the Building on the Principles, ID4D’s recently launched Practitioner’s Guide walks readers through key decisions and best-practice technical options to tackle common challenges. The guide covers registration strategies to facilitate universal coverage, processes and technologies to increase privacy and security, and guidance on standards and procurement to improve interoperability and avoid vendor and technology lock-in.

Now is the time to accelerate action

Following its civil conflict, Peru committed to making identification a national priority. Assuring the unique identification of citizens and residents was an important symbol of re-integration and reconciliation, especially for those with no identity documents. As a result of this commitment, Peru has accomplished nearly universal ID coverage today. With his new ID, Juan was able to enroll in school, receive assistance from social programs that helped him excel in his studies, and receive a scholarship to attend university.

With her ID, Mariam was able to cross the Kenyan border in a safe and secure way. This has helped her to grow her business in Uganda and open a bank account to secure and manage her finances. It has also reduced the costs of trade such as paying for bribes and fines, and she has been able to send her goods to Rwanda and Tanzania.

In India, Shanti’s life changed when she received a new digital identity through the Aadhaar biometric ID system. Her cash benefits are transferred directly into her bank account, which she was able to open with her Aadhaar number and her fingerprint. She can now make and receive digital payments, with any person or business, even without a smartphone. With her ID, she is now fully empowered to exercise her rights and access services and economic opportunities.

Accelerating action at all levels to leave no one behind

With a rapidly growing number of countries in the process of implementing new digital ID systems or modernizing existing ones, it is critical that best practices are effectively incorporated to maximize impact and minimize risks, particularly for the poorest and most marginalized people like Juan, Mariam and Shanti

Countries need to get the fundamentals right. They need to develop their capacity, institutions, laws and regulations and then choose appropriate and inclusive technologies. This entails removing legal and administrative barriers, reducing the distance between people and the nearest registration point, minimizing the fees associated with registration and ID issuance, and creating special incentives to promote registration, especially for members of vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Strengthening the quality of ID systems will be equally critical. The systems being designed and built now must be responsive to the needs of individuals and societies today while also being able to adapt and scale to those in the future. Most importantly, we need to continue to put people at the center of the design of any digital ID system to enhance their control and protect their data. To do this, countries and the international community need to dial up the conversation and engagement between governments, civil society, development partners, and the private sector to globally advocate for ‘Good ID’ and to share information and leverage knowledge and experience.