Digital identities have become an integral part of modern life, but things like e-passports, digital health records, or Apple Pay really only provide faster, easier, or sometimes smarter ways of accessing services that are already available.
In developing countries it’s a different story. There, digital ID technology can have a profound impact on people’s lives by enabling them to access vital and often life-saving services for the very first time.
This makes the technology highly attractive for solving a range of problems, not least achieving what the United Nations calls Sustainable Development Goal 16. It requires all 193 member countries to ensure that everyone has a legal form of identity by 2030. The aim is to safeguard the rights of millions of marginalized or disenfranchised people, giving them access to things we often take for granted—education, health services, or the ability to vote.
The challenge is that in poor countries, an increasing number of people live under the radar, invisible to the often archaic, paper-based methods used to certify births, deaths, and marriages. One in three children under age five does not officially exist because their birth wasn’t registered. Even when it is, many don’t have proof in the form of birth certificates. This can have a lasting impact on children’s lives, leaving them vulnerable to neglect and abuse.
In light of this, it is difficult to see how we will meet the SDG16 deadline without a radical solution. What we need are new and affordable digital ID technologies capable of working in poorly resourced settings—for example, where there is no reliable electricity—and yet able to leapfrog current approaches to reach everyone, whether they’re living in remote villages or urban slums.
Such technologies are already emerging as part of efforts to increase global childhood vaccination coverage, with small-scale trials across Africa and Asia. With 86 percent of infants now having access to routine immunization—where they receive all three doses of a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine—there are obvious advantages of building on an existing system with such a broad reach.
These systems were designed to help the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and my organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, close the gap on the one in seven infants still missing out. But they can also be used to help us achieve SDG16.
One, called MyChild, helps countries transition from paper to digital. At first glance it looks like a typical paper booklet on which workers can record health-record details about the child, such as vaccinations, deworming, or nutritional supplements. But each booklet contains a unique identification number and tear-out slips that are collected and scanned later. This means that even if a child’s birth hasn’t been registered, a unique digital record will follow them through childhood. Developed by Swedish startup Shifo, this system has been used to register more than 95,000 infants in Uganda, Afghanistan, and the Gambia, enabling health workers to follow up either in person or using text reminders to parents.
Another system, called Khushi Baby, is entirely paperless and involves giving each child a digital necklace that contains a unique ID number on a near-field communication chip. This can be scanned by community health workers using a cell phone, enabling them to update a child’s digital health records even in remote areas with no cell coverage. Trials in the Indian state of Rajasthan have been carried out across 100 villages to track more than 15,000 vaccination events.
An organization called ID2020 is exploring the use of blockchain technology to create access to a unique identity for those who currently lack one.
Other digital identification solutions in development include ones that use biometric-based iris recognition. While such high-tech solutions may at first seem over the top, it’s worth remembering that this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen technology leapfrog its way into developing countries. The lack of existing infrastructure in some poor countries can, in many ways, make them ideal for entirely new technology deployments. We saw this in Africa, first with cell phones rapidly outstripping landlines, and then with uptake of the M-pesa mobile payment system over traditional banking. Today M-pesa moves 44 percent of the GDP of Kenya.
With digital IDs, the stakes are much higher. As with any digital identity technology, security, reliability, and privacy are paramount. But given the potential benefits, this kind of technology could transform the lives of millions of the most vulnerable children. And by giving them visibility in the digital world, we can help prevent a life of invisibility in the real world.
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