Oxfam weighs use of biometrics for humanitarian aid in new report

The recent Rohingya crisis response in Bangladesh illustrates the polarizing nature of a debate over the value of using biometrics to register people to receive humanitarian aid, according to an article by ICT in Programme Humanitarian Adviser Anna Kondakhchyan, published ahead of the release of an Oxfam report on the subject.

Coordinating aid distribution for the estimated 688,000 people displaced by the crisis has been an immense and complex effort, facilitated by biometric systems. The sensitive data collected could be used against those the programs are intended to help, however, should their persecutors acquire it, according to the article.

Oxfam put a self-imposed moratorium on biometric use into place in 2015, and began a research project in November, in collaboration with non-profit social change support organization The Engine Room, to assess whether or not to begin using the technology. The research involved interviews with stakeholders from the development sector, and biometrics industry experts and practitioners, as well as debate among the “Responsible Data” community, according to Kondakhchyan.

Oxfam initiated the research in response to the changing context around biometrics in the humanitarian sector. That changing context includes more widespread deployment of the technology, increased pressure from international donors use biometrics to demonstrate the effectiveness of programs, and a preference to distribute cash, instead of food and other essentials, to people in emergencies. These increasing pressures may not be helping the humanitarian efforts, or resulting in effective deployments of biometric technology, the report suggests.

“The report argues that amid pushes for innovation, the humanitarian sector has been home to ‘experimental’ uses of technology for technologies’ sake,” Kondakhchyan writes. “Biometrics fall in this category.”

Interviews suggest that fraud is perceived as a problem by some stakeholders, but those stakeholders were not able to quantify its extent. According to the report, “there has been no effort on the part of key user-organisations to compare the cost of instituting biometrics systems with the cost of fraud to the organisations.”

The report also considers the risk of exclusion from using biometrics, such as if people have physical or cultural reasons for being unable or reluctant to share biometric data.

Traditional methods of distributing aid to refugees can result in losses of up to 20 percent, according to an announcement earlier this year by IFC and IrisGuard of expanded use of biometrics to increase financial inclusion of Syrian refugees in Jordan.

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