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Gates Foundation identifies biometrics as one pillar of tech “trinity” for digital inclusion



Biometric identification is one-third of a trinity of technologies that can enable more efficient and equitable resource distribution in developing nations, according to a new report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Along with mobile phones and bank accounts, biometrics not only can have a significant impact on digital inclusion and social welfare programs, they already have, in the case of cooking gas subsidies in India, the report says.

The annual Goalkeepers Data Report reviews the progress of a range of different programs and initiatives working towards the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

While the report’s section on digital inclusion does not explicitly refer to digital bank accounts, the use of mobile phones to access them makes clear that the technology referred to is valuable because of the increased access it provides to those who were underserved by traditional, analogue systems. Together, the three technologies make up the “JAM” trinity in India, where J stands for bank account initiative Jan Dhan Yojana, A stands for Aadhaar, and M stands for mobile phones.

“Bank accounts, biometrics connected to ID, and mobile phones enabled the government of India to enable 75 million poor, rural women to benefit from subsidized gas stoves,” Gates Foundation CEO Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann told GeekWire in an interview.

Not only that, the government has saved nearly $9 billion, and the previous situation in which the wealthiest ten percent collected seven times more subsidies than the poorest 10 percent has been at least somewhat rectified.

The technologies led the government to redesign the program, as well as others involving social benefits and inclusion, in ways that empower women, according to the “story of progress” in the report.
The report acknowledges significant risks associated with powerful digital and identification technologies, and Desmond-Hellmann says that some initiatives are better handled by governments than the private sector.

“Things like biometric IDs can be controversial, and we think it’s best driven by sovereign nations,” she says. “There’s a very important dialogue, including in India, about the risks and benefits of biometric ID systems.”

The Gates Foundation initiatives relating to digital ID include support for the development of the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP) to help governments break free of vendor lock-in in biometric identification systems.

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