Over a billion people cannot prove who they are. As a result, they can’t access life-enhancing services such as healthcare, education, financial services, connectivity and social protections. This “identity gap” – affecting some 14% of the world’s population – is widest in developing countries across Africa and Asia, and creates significant challenges around implementing and measuring social engagement and upholding civil rights such as voting, healthcare, employment, economic participation and education. For vulnerable populations – rural residents, the poor, children, forcibly displaced persons, among others – the impact can be devastating.
How can we solve this identity crisis? A key to the answer lies in the palm of our hand – mobile technology. Mobile can give national governments and other ecosystem players the opportunity to leapfrog traditional outdated paper-based systems and offer more inclusive methods of providing recognised digital identities, while giving citizens the foundation for full participation in society.
Let’s take a look at three ways that digital identity is transforming lives today:
1. Mobile Birth Registration
It is estimated that globally, one in three children under the age of five – roughly 230 million children – have not had their births officially registered, a process that creates a permanent record of a child’s identity and also gives access to a range of vital services. The disparities in birth registration rates across the globe are staggering – the World Health Organization estimates that 99% of unregistered births occur in developing countries. In many of the world’s hardest-to-reach areas, the high cost and inconvenience associated with traditional registration processes, which often require parents to make multiple long journeys to government offices, present significant barriers. Mobile is changing this.
Mobile birth registration solutions are improving how birth data is collected, verified and stored. For instance, in Burkina Faso, newborns are given hospital bracelets with a QR code that is scanned via a mobile app, where registration details for the baby are also entered. The information is then sent to a server for creation of a birth certificate with corresponding QR code. The technology has already increased birth registration rates for so-called ‘ghost children’, those that are not typically registered.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile technology is increasing registration rates in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Uganda. In Tanzania, a mobile registration platform has registered 1.7 million births since 2013, helping to raise the overall level of registration and certification in the project regions from 10.5% to 79%.
UNHCR estimates that there are more than 65 million forcibly displaced persons (FDPs) worldwide, many of whom have been displaced for more than two decades. Further, approximately 20 million people are displaced every year due to natural disasters and climate-related events. Due to the extreme circumstances under which they are forced to flee their homes, FDPs are less likely than other migrants and foreign nationals to possess proof of identity; these may have been forgotten, lost, destroyed or stolen during their journey, or purposefully left behind.
For this reason, FDPs are more likely to face identity-related barriers that contribute to digital, financial and social exclusion and also limit their access to mobile connectivity and mobile financial services. As we have seen through our work, enabling access to mobile services can lead to positive outcomes not just for FDPs themselves, but also for humanitarian agencies, host governments and local communities.
Mobile technology can play a vital role in helping refugees to register and assert their identity. For instance, a collaboration between UNHCR and other organisations working in the humanitarian space has led to the development of the KoBo Toolbox, a free, open-source tool for mobile data collection that allows organisations to collect refugee data in the field using mobile phones or tablets.
In Malaysia, UNHCR has begun issuing photo ID cards that can be scanned and verified using a free mobile application called ‘UNHCR VERIFY-MY’. The mobile application allows anyone, including law enforcement officials and other authorities engaged in UNHCR’s protection work, to scan a QR code on the back of the ID and visually verify the card holder against the personal details and photograph displayed on the mobile device’s screen.
3. Blockchain for Development
Blockchain-enabled platforms are also transforming the way individual identities are recorded and managed, improving access to vital services. For example, Gravity describes itself as a ‘next-generation identity solution’ with an ambition to give everyone access to a mobile phone by creating know your customer (KYC)-compliant digital identities. To do this, they help individuals establish a trusted identity – or ‘proof of existence’ – that can be validated over time by the people that form their social network. Once a user has been authenticated, mobile operators can be given permission to link into Gravity’s blockchain to check a customer’s KYC-related information and see the most current picture of their profile. Gravity recently ran their first pilot in Kenya, registering 1,000 users over three days, and is currently working on a second pilot with an aim to register 10,000 people on their platform.
In Jordan, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Building Blocks platform has been used to transfer $1 million in food vouchers to 10,500 Syrian refugees, using the system to facilitate more than 220,000 individual transactions. Rather than relying on a financial intermediary to manage the delivery of food entitlements, WFP’s private blockchain is used to create secure profiles for every refugee. At the point of sale, the merchant uses a connected device to authenticate the refugee’s transaction against the entitlement information stored on Building Blocks, and automatically confirm that the beneficiary has the ‘credit’ available to make their purchase.
What Does the Future of Identity Hold?
A number of countries, such as Costa Rica and India, are already moving towards digital birth, marriage and death certificates, and the next logical step will be to have verified copies of these types of certificates available via mobile phones. Mobile operators are also enabling simplified registration and authentication for eGovernment services for citizens using their mobile phone.
Singapore is looking to upgrade its national ID card to take advantage of mobile technology to improve security and access to government services. And De La Rue, which produces passports for governments around the world, is currently exploring the use of smartphones to securely store passport information and thus eliminate the need for physical passports altogether.
With more than 5.1 billion subscribers globally, mobile connects people as no other technology before, providing access to a vast array of life-enhancing and, in some cases, life-changing services. Given this scale, the mobile industry has a unique opportunity to bring the benefits of digital technology to many of the poorest and hardest to reach communities around the world, and in doing so, help deliver one of the key targets of Sustainable Development Goal 16: by 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.
Mats Granryd (@MatsGranryd) is the Director General of the GSMA.