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History of digital identification in the developing world

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The idea of providing identification to support economic and social development evolved out of sustainable development communities, and has early roots in ICT or digital development communities.

The early history of identification systems, in terms of both their use and proliferation, was at least partially driven by colonialism. The biblical story of the birth of Jesus, for example, involves Joseph and Mary travelling to Joseph’s ancestral home to take part in a census by Roman Imperial authorities. The same is true, at least to some extent, in modern identification systems. In 1858 Sir William Herschel instituted a hand-print system for employees of India’s Civil Service to prevent payment fraud, for example. A method of classifying fingerprints for efficient searches was developed by Azizul Haque in 1896 for the Inspector General of the Bengal Police, Sir Edward Henry.

Identification systems gradually became more robust in the world’s richest countries.

The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) was formed in 1944 to finance the rebuilding of Europe, along with the World Bank Group, of which it is a part. The World Bank Group was formally instituted as part of the Bretton Woods agreements of 1946.

The concept of international development as a global responsibility is commonly traced to post World War II efforts such as the Marshall Plan, and President Harry Truman’s 1949 assertion that:
“We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. The old imperialism – exploitation for foreign profit – has not place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concept of democratic fair dealing.”

The IBRD has published a World Development Report since 1978, and the challenge of identifying individuals who are meant to be served by a particular project was noted in the 1980 Report (PDF). Economists Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen launched the first Human Development Report (HDR) in 1990, influencing the popular and institutional perception of development toward a focus on human needs and capability.

The institutionalization of the concept began in earnest with the launch of the World Bank’s ID4D Initiative, and the formulation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which explicitly call for universal identification for social and economic inclusion.

Timeline of digital identification in the developing world

1960 – International Development Association (IDA) launched to compliment the IBRD by providing grants and loans to poor countries.

2000 – The UN launches its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which consist of eight international development goals for the year 2015.

2000 – UNICEF study shows 36 percent of children worldwide, and 40 percent of children in the developing world are not registered at birth.

2006 – UNICEF Innovation Unit is formed, to support digital technologies with social benefits to scale. The concept of identification for development is not recorded at the time, but is logically implied by the principles of the ICT4D[link] movement. UNICEF’s Innovation Principles followed in 2009.

2009 — The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is founded, which will eventually lead to the launch of the Aadhaar program, the largest biometric system and government identification initiative in the world.

2012 – Principles for Digital Development are created at a meeting of international donor and multilateral organizations

2012 — The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are decided on to replace the Millennium Development Goals at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janiero.

2013 – The Center for Global Development publishes Identification for Development: The Biometrics Revolution — Working Paper 315, by Alan Gelb and Julia Clark. The document surveys 160 cases of biometric technology being used to identify people for economic, political, and social purposes in developing countries.

2014 – The World Bank launches its Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative.

2015 — The ID4Africa movement is founded, and carries out its first annual conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

2015 — The UN Sustainable Development Goals are officially adopted, including the SDG 16.9 to provide legal identity for all people worldwide, including birth registration, by 2030.

2016 — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joins the World Bank Group to scale up the ID4D initiative. Omidyar Network added its support for the initiative in 2017.

2016 – ID2020 holds its inaugural summit to advocate for private sector partnerships with the UN to prove identification for an estimated 230 million children and 60 million stateless people without it.

2016 – 1.5B people remain without formal legal identification, according to the World Bank

2017 – 1.1B remain without legal ID

2018 — 1B remain without legal ID

Learn more about digital identification in the developing world.

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