No Identification in the Digital Age

Source: UN Women/Fatma Elzahraa Yassin;

In today’s digital age, many people are worried about having their identity stolen and used for nefarious purposes, but what if you never had an official identity?

Astonishingly, almost 1 in 7 people throughout the world cannot prove their identity, that’s just over 1.1 billion people. This lack of proper identification restricts these peoples access to essential services such as education, social protection, financial services, and healthcare. The majority of these people live in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia and more than a third of them are children who are not registered at birth.

Within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) there is a focus on getting those without identification into the system. Specifically, in SDG target 16.9: “By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.” Forgoing the obvious benefit of registering people within their national system, it will also make attainment of many other SDG goals possible. This is theoretically possible in two ways. The first being that people who obtained identification would have access to the many of the targets discussed in the goals such as, healthcare, education, and political rights. The second way would involve the ability to collect data to inform whether SDGs were being accomplished more accurately. The improved data/statistics would also better serve governments to use resources more efficiently and better inform future policies.

In order to better address this issue, just last week, the World Bank Group’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative launched a High Level Advisory Council to advance the realisation of robust, inclusive, and responsible digital identification systems as a sustainable development priority. The group, co-chaired by the World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva and United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed, will deliver strategic guidance to the ID4D initiative and engage international forums and countries to advocate its vision. The council had their inaugural meeting last week to discuss opportunities, challenges, and emerging trends that countries face in getting identification for those without it.

The meeting also coincided with the release of a report titled, Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development: Towards the Digital Age. The report lays out ten principles (see figure A), with a focus on technology as a major part of identification expansion. ID4D is looking at the digital age and its advances in digital and biometric identification technology as a way forward over traditional paper based identification. They also believe mobile devices provide a promising solution to enroll and authenticate individuals with unique identification, especially in more rural or remote areas.

Figure A, Source: World Bank

While the premise of identification for all is a lofty goal, as are most of the SDGs, this does not mean it is unattainable. At the same time, the development community including the ID4D program and those like it, must be cautious in its implementation. Positive examples of modern ID technology allow both countries and their people to prosper, such as the biometric technology in Pakistan which ensures women receive cash transfers directly which empowers them to decide how the money should be spent. On the other end of the spectrum we have hazier uses such as the social credit system set to be implemented in China by 2020 which will compile fiscal and government information, including social media commentary, in a single score (for more on this 1984-esque system check out this story). One thing that remains true above all is that the more people who have identification the higher chance of accurate development data, which can be utilized to formulate future development policy and projects. It will be up to the development community to sort and utilize this information constructively.


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World Bank Group. (2017, October 12). Principles on Identification for Sustainable
Development: Towards the Digital Age (Rep.). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from
World Bank Group website:

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1 Response to No Identification in the Digital Age

  1. Helen says:

    Very good conclusion in the end. This challenge of having no identification is something I have also touched upon in one of my blog posts in data and development. This is a theme that seems to interest many. Linnet Taylor also writes about this challenge in her article “What is data justice”? from February 2017 that I have used in my blog post. It’s good to see that this issue is also on the agenda for the SDGs!

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