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Efficiency gains from biometrics could help cover humanitarian funding gaps: UN report


Biometrics and digital ID

The global humanitarian response landscape has changed drastically over recent years; new and emerging technologies such as biometrics and digital identity are enabling a shift from reaction to crises to anticipating them, says the United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a new report.

While 235 million people, as of 2021, are in need of humanitarian assistance, and funding requirements have grown to $35 Billion, new technologies are crucial in creating better needs analysis and systematic monitoring.

Biometrics and digital IDs can provide efficient access to services, participation in financial systems and enable freedom of movement. In 2018, a biometrics project run by the IRC and iRespond was piloted in Thailand’s Mae La camp where many refugees were living without any legal identification. Those with mobile devices could use them with “digital wallets,” where data was kept privately by the individual. For those without a mobile, personal data was stored in internal IRC repositories that could be deleted or accessed on request.

This provided people with both data sovereignty and a way to facilitate livelihood opportunities through digital health and education documentation.

While biometrics have an increasingly positive impact, the challenges associated have been well documented; from building trust, to establishing regulations. Due to the nature of the data, robust safeguards are necessary, along with a secure data infrastructure. As OCHA notes, non-state actors may seek unauthorized access to biometric data via cyberattacks, which can compromise the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The Thailand project was supported by the ID2020 Alliance, a public-private partnership that seeks to promote ethical digital ID whose approaches include ensuring that data controls utilize encrypted, anonymized digital IDs that can only be unlocked by the owner; and combining biometrics with blockchain for secure storage and verification.

Biometrics and digital ID technology implementations should aim to improve people’s lives, concludes OCHA, and not create further issues for people affected by or responding to humanitarian crises. While many projects are still in pilot stages, it is clear that in the coming years, technology can enable earlier, faster and more effective humanitarian action when established under governance.

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