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Digital ID in humanitarian contexts: Lessons learned and what’s next

Digital identity is inevitable. How we design it and use it is up to us. The time is now to get it right for the individuals and our society.

November 4, 2021

By Leila Toplic, Head of Emerging Technologies Initiative, NetHope

Digital identity is quickly becoming the foundation of our increasingly digital and data-driven society. At the end of 2020, 1.26B Indian residents got their Aadhaar ID (99% of adults), a digital identity that is based on their biometric and demographic data.​ Earlier this year, the European Union announced a new digital identity framework for the EU, which will allow all citizens to prove their identity, share electronic documents, and access online services from their smartphone through a digital identity wallet. According to Gartner, by 2024, a true global, portable, decentralized identity standard will emerge in the market to address business, personal, social and societal, and identity-invisible use cases.  

Today, over 1 billion people still lack proof of identity. This puts them at risk of being invisible to those who can help them access essential services and support including food, housing, healthcare, education, and finance.

According to IFRC, “the humanitarian sector cannot help people if it fails to see them. People who lack proof of identity are often effectively out of sight when it comes to receiving the assistance they need.” At the same time, the pandemic has underscored the growing importance of digital service delivery and accelerated digitalization of vital services, many of which require some form of digital identity.  

In the nonprofit sector, it’s likely that digital identity will be at the core of any data-driven humanitarian organization. Digital identity solutions can be applied in a wide variety of humanitarian contexts and offer several benefits - they can increase access to essential services and resources, decrease fraud, and reduce administrative costs. However, despite the benefits of convenience, traceability, and cost-effectiveness– digital identity and digitalization of humanitarian services are plagued with many challenges. They include: increased risk of excluding already marginalized groups – due to a lack of digital access and literacy, an inability to connect digital identity to / across meaningful services, lack of trust surrounding reliability, security, and privacy of digital identity data, and insufficient funding and capacity to build and use safe digital ID systems, and an absent sector-wide digital identity approach.  

What have we learned from the digital identity efforts so far and what are the possible futures for digital identity in humanitarian and international development contexts?  

On November 16th, at the NetHope 20th Anniversary Summit  I will host a conversation with Joseph Oliveros (IFRC), Elizabeth Shaughnessy (Oxfam), and Alexandra Grigore (Simprints) centered around digital identity in humanitarian and international development contexts.  

​In the session, we’ll discuss a number of questions and lessons learned. Here is a preview:

  • In order to reach and support some of the most vulnerable communities, humanitarian organizations need to be able to implement and maintain digital identity technologies in contexts with limited connectivity and power, and low digital literacy. How do we mitigate the risk of digital exclusion? What does that look like in practice?  
  • Why is the interoperability of digital ID systems important for humanitarian actors? 
  • How can we adapt digital ID approaches to each context to enhance inclusion and access to services? 
  • What are some of the approaches to giving beneficiaries (more) control over their data including who has access to it and for what purposes? 
  • How do we balance the need for using digital identity to prove who you are and what you have / know / do (i.e., health, education, work credentials) with the concerns about security and privacy (e.g., what is being done with your data without your consent)? 
  • Humanitarian organizations lack relevant technical expertise, resources, and policies to design, implement and maintain digital ID solutions in a responsible, humane, and sustainable way. How do we address these gaps and build less complex and safer technology? 

In the plenary right after this session, Belkis Wille from Human Rights Watch (HRW) will talk about the case of Rohingya refugees’ registration where the United Nations refugee agency according to HRW, “improperly collected and shared personal information from ethnic Rohingya refugees with Bangladesh.” Ms. Wille will explore the perils of operational decisions by humanitarians that prioritize efficiency and put people at serious risk. 

Digital identity (ID) verifies a unique identity based on electronically captured and stored credentials and characteristics, which may include biometrics. Identity can be foundational/ legal, used to prove who a person is, or functional, used to authenticate a participant without necessarily revealing their legal identity. (Source: World Bank’s Technology Landscape for Digital Identification)  

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