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Seraphine recently received a national ID card issued by her country, Rwanda. It includes her photo and some basic details: her name, gender, birthdate, place of issue and a copy of her signature along with a 16digit number. The card – or more importantly, its number – is how she will identify herself and will be officially recognized from now on. In a country where memories of ethnic conflict are still fresh it’s an attempt to move beyond the past into a new digital future.
Around the world, governments and citizens are increasing their digital interaction. A unique digital ID is the first step to receiving benefits and paying taxes but it also raises some important questions: Is this new digital governance empowering? Does it reduce corruption and misuse of public resources? Are we moving toward a better world where governments are efficient and accountable? These questions are fundamental to the changes underway as a result of the rapid spread of digital technologies, mobile communications and social media.
Within the past decade, more than 140 countries have issued electronic or digital IDs. As with Rwanda, many of them have issued cards that can store fingerprint and iris scans – or the “biometrics” of a person. India’s unique biometric ID – Aadhaar – is an online system that has registered 1.2 billion residents in six years. This revolution in identification – largely unnoticed until recently – has been spearheaded by developing countries. In Malawi, the government registered the whole population in a matter of months. Pakistan and Indonesia have built multipurpose ID databases covering nearly their whole population; they are now used for personal verification and authentication.
Three big changes make this transformation possible.
First is identification. It is easier to design and deliver programs to improve health, education and social security if the state knows and can identify the end beneficiary. With a digital registry and authentication at the point of service, governments can better allocate fiscal resources and track their impact more effectively. Interestingly, the immediate impact is often the discovery of “ghosts” – people who do not actually exist but still receive benefits from the government, including salaries and pensions. In Ghana for example, more than 26,000 such workers were found in the public sector alone, costing the government more than $100 million a year. These savings in and of themselves can help offset the cost of setting up a national digital ID system.