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Humanitarians are embracing biometrics, but what does that mean for target populations?

Humanitarians are embracing biometrics, but what does that mean for target populations?

By Anne Lauder, M.A. candidate in International Studies at the University of Denver

Houthi rebels’ consistent disruption of humanitarian aid in Yemen has elicited renewed calls from donors for transparency and accountability in the provision of services, placing pressure not only on organizations operating in Yemen, but also on the humanitarian sector at large, to maximize efficiency.

Prompted by these calls, the World Food Programme (WFP) has proposed biometric registration to overcome fraud and reach intended beneficiaries in Yemen. Met with Houthi reluctance, the WFP has already descaled aid operations on several occasions. To date, the implementation of biometrics remains a source of contentious gridlock. Caught in the crosshairs of this diametrically opposed stalemate are the more than 24 million individuals – 80 percent of Yemen’s population — in need of assistance.

The application of biometrics to humanitarianism is not rooted in Yemen. Aid organizations in South Sudan and Kenya have already relied on this for identification purposes.

Here’s what biometrics could mean for humanitarianism and the security of target populations.

Prevents diversion at the beneficiary level, but overlooks diversion at the level of the supply chain, which is where most fraud occurs.

Biometrics can prevent diversion once aid is on the ground, but to capture a wider scope of disruption, humanitarians need to incorporate safety valves that also prevent ‘upstream’ fraud. Biometric identification is not a ‘catch all’ solution, and so should be implemented only under limited circumstances in which diversion on the ground is a known hazard. A sole reliance on biometric identification eclipses the wider volume of fraud that occurs at the supply chain, and the misallocation of resources carries severe consequences, particularly when budgets are tight. A misguided understanding that overestimates the prevalence of ground-level fraud is likely to redirect aid resources away from the very populations humanitarians intend to serve.

Provides a viable alternative to scaling back aid, but risks erosion of cherished humanitarian principles and may violate standards of informed consent, particularly if biometrics is leveraged as a prerequisite to assistance.

Houthi authorities claim the introduction of biometrics threatens principles of neutrality and impartiality. But the gradual dissolution of these principles predates the implementation of biometrics, undermining the salience of this argument. Donor interests determine aid flows, and time and again, funding is inequitable across crises, with areas of strategic interest garnering a higher funding-to-need ratio than others. Biometric registration which dichotomizes populations into ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ may muddy the contextual realities of crisis, however. This approach risks reductionism, failing to acknowledge that perpetrators of crises may very well also experience victimization.

Additionally, international laws on the collection and protection of data are limited in application to member states of organizations responsible for codifying data rights, such as the European Union (EU). Without international guidelines narrowly tailored to humanitarian operations, beneficiaries are largely at the mercy of biometric standards that vary dramatically by operation and organization. Beneficiaries have reason to express reluctance to data collection, as it poses risk of misidentification and dismisses rights of choice and privacy when registration becomes a prerequisite to assistance, treating individuals as passive bystanders in the control of their information. The imposition of these technologies also reproduces deeply embedded colonialized practices often prevalent in intervention and aid operations.

Initial increase in trust among donors may be coupled with a decrease in trust among beneficiaries. And if data breaches do occur, long term faith in the humanitarian system and the security of vulnerable populations may be undermined.

Disrupted aid has dried funding streams available to humanitarian organizations, as donors’ shrinking confidence has translated to financial cuts. As of August 2020, aid agencies reported that only about 24 percent of that year’s financial needs had been met. Humanitarians operate under intense spotlight as competition over scarce resources heightens donors’ calls for transparency, efficiency, and accountability. While donor trust and support allow organizations to reach target populations, data has its downfalls. In Afghanistan, some data collected for humanitarian organizations was compiled by the now-deposed Afghan government, opening an avenue for sensitive information to fall into the hands of the Taliban. Rights groups have already begun reporting reprisal killings and threats. Further complicated still, uncertainty regarding the volume of data collection and dissemination has created an additional hurdle to protecting vulnerable populations. And without codified data guidelines in humanitarianism, this is a risk likely to be perpetuated.

The willingness of humanitarian aid organizations to adopt biometrics represents a responsive sector capable of adaptation and flexibility, but rapid technologization should be attenuated with caution. The protection of humanity in humanitarian practices requires agency of target populations. Any approach taken must prioritize human security in all its forms, including that of beneficiary sovereignty, privacy, dignity and choice in the collection and dissemination of private information.

About the author

Anne Lauder is an M.A. candidate in International Studies at the University of Denver specializing in humanitarian assistance and research methods. She is on research teams at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy and the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver.

DISCLAIMER: Biometric Update’s Industry Insights are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Biometric Update.

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