National identification systems come in many flavors. Roughly 60% of nations have some form of national ID card, but the requirements, coverage, captured data, and advantages of possessing a card vary greatly. Some developing countries (e.g., Malaysia, Estonia) are models of multi-purpose systems that allow efficient access to a broad range of services, while helping the state manage civic and social programs. Other efforts to create a national ID system have faltered due to corruption, inefficiency, poor leadership, political in-fighting, or suspicion that the system will be used as a means of state control or oppression. Kentaro Toyama may have been thinking of national ID systems when he explained the “Law of Amplification.” He states: “Technology doesn’t cause a fixed benefit wherever it’s used; rather, it amplifies underlying human forces. … Democratic governments use digital tools to improve transparency, but repressive regimes censor content and track voices of protest online.”
When designed and managed well, national ID cards facilitate a number of critical functions – travel, banking, healthcare, driving, and voting, to name a few. With biometric features built in, the potential for fraud is greatly reduced, and issues such as illiteracy and mobility are mitigated. Further, a national identification system increases the potential of digital and mobile services. However, there are myriad challenges to implementing a comprehensive, efficient system. Integration with state, health, education, and financial systems is complex, and requires active collaboration among a diverse set of federal and provincial organizations. The process of developing and rolling out a comprehensive system is expensive, time-consuming, and resource-intensive. After launch, the collection, storage, and use of data require a lot of training and skilled management. And public buy-in is not guaranteed.
The development community can play a vital role in helping governments design and implement (or improve) a national ID system with the broadest positive impact. Development organizations can sponsor research, provide guidance, coordinate development efforts between stakeholders, deliver training, and measure effectiveness. Organizations can leverage long histories and influential contacts in specific verticals (e.g., healthcare, financial services) to ensure that ID systems are well integrated with their areas of focus. They can also advocate for strong privacy and security measures. For many in the development community, the benefits of a viable national ID (particularly with biometric features) are readily apparent. A reliable ID system is essential for the expansion of other ICT4D, allowing organizations to verify the identity of aid recipients, deliver and track healthcare, expand financial services to the poor, reduce elections fraud, and increase state revenues through taxation. With focus and tenacity, development organizations can ensure that national ID systems amplify the good in the countries they serve.