If humanitarians can’t uniquely identify individuals, we can’t fullfil our mandate to protect vulnerable people like this drought affected community in Kenya. ©Paula Gil Baizan
Last week, Devex and IRIN ran two articles pointing to potential security failures in a humanitarian cash transfers payments platform. While the news is of concern, it wasn’t surprising. Humanitarians know we need to get much better at safeguarding the data we collect from the people we aim to serve. ID is a complex issue that challenges the foundations of a segmented sector reluctant to approach technology as anything but an asset for competition. To solve the problem of humanitarian ID, we would need to approach technology in a new way. But new ideas can only thrive in old structures if unique space is created for them to grow and blossom. What does that space look like for ID and who is truly able to provide it?
More than a billion people in the world are unable to prove their identity. Every day NGOs and the UN collect personal data from these individuals to enable access to the services they provide. The majority of the individuals we collect data from need our protection from abuse, violence and conflict. For a long time now, we’ve known that the data we collect can be potentially misused. For an equally long time, we have known we need to do something serious to safeguard the privacy and security of it. Last week’s articles in IRIN and Devex made this knowledge public.
Defining the problem is not an issue in the case of humanitarian ID. While we still need to agree on technical standards, we agree on the need to provide an inclusive, well designed and responsibly governed ID to the people we aim to serve. The provision of identification is embodied in SDG Target 16.9, and is an enabler of numerous other Targets. High level principles regarding ID and the SDG target already exists.
The incentives to find a solution are also clear. The problem of ID is directly related to the mandate of humanitarian agencies. If we are not able to uniquely identify individuals, we can’t be effective or efficient. As such, there are several on-going initiatives to solve the ID problem.

The World Bank Group’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative launched a High Level Advisory Council this October ‘to advance the realization of robust, inclusive and responsible digital identification systems as a sustainable development priority.’ A group of technology experts from six NGOs have been working together with Mastercard and Caribou to define the technical standards for a single humanitarian ID. There are surely others I don’t know of.

I’m literally writing this blog on my way to San Francisco where CARE will host key humanitarians and private sector actors to discuss a way forward for ID and data interoperability on behalf of the 15 NGOs building the Collective Cash Delivery Platform (CCD). My hope is that we will be strategic and move forward towards generating a solution not a product.
The approach: Products vs solutions
Humanitarians have a long-standing love affair with the product approach. For decades, we have believed that the best way to achieve a degree of impact in the complex environments we work in is to simplify our focus when designing interventions. We have produced many reports describing how saving lives requires scalable solutions, that can be deployed quickly and preferably don’t generate dependence. So, we try to dissect people’s needs in neatly defined categories so we can organize ourselves in an efficient way to fulfil them. We use these ‘simplified’ versions of real needs to develop products. They have different names in each organization, but we all have them: easily deployable, scalable and replicable programs using cash in kind or a mix of both. People like to read stories about our humanitarian products and donors like to fund them.
To be fair the product approach makes our work predictable and (sometimes) quick. But it doesn’t really allow us to achieve ‘sustainability’ in our work. In general, products tend to work better in well-funded sudden onset disasters but fail when we try to fulfil needs in a complex environment we can’t control over an extended period of time.
The humanitarian approach to technology, while focused on innovation, has suffered from a product approach. Technology products developed in house for design, information management and ID tend to be seen as part of agency’s competitive advantage regardless of the return on investment. In most cases this tech products respond to individual agency requirements, and in some instances even exclude third party use.
Inertia might push us into solving the problem of ID using a product approach: non plus ultra products, generated by the private sector or (in the worst case) NGOs and the UN. We run the risk of building a myriad of mechanisms that are duplicative, frail, and costly. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
We could embrace the political, social and economic complexity behind humanitarian ID and develop a solution for it. We could be more strategic and build a suite of open and agency neutral tools that together create a robust platform that is interoperable and responsive to the context. Solutions tend to be highly customizable overcoming the issue of contextualization.
ECHO has noted in the latest version of its Cash Guidance that ID should be a ‘public good’. This poses a series of prolems. Both products and solutions can effectively exclude a certain category of actors and, depending on their design, the use by one actor reduces availability to others. If donors believe in the need to make ID available for all users (end users included) they should incentivise the generation of products or solutions that are open and agency neutral. I’m guessing this was the intention behind using the term ‘public good’, I’m just not sure it will translate into what is needed.
Needless to say, while a product approach could be better to generate competition to reduce the number of actors in the market, a solutions approach to ID is more likely to bring financial and operational sustainability to our collective work.
The space in between
Looking at the problem of ID from a solutions perspective will require a paradigm shift in the way the humanitarian sector approaches technology. As long as technology is being used with the main purpose of increasing the competitive advantage of single agencies or private sector actors, we can be sure that a product approach will prevail. To change gears, we would need to perceive each other as part of an ecosystem whose sole purpose is to save lives and protect vulnerable individuals. In this ecosystem, technology is not something individual entities own, it is a tool that is available to everyone to do their work easier, better and faster.
Sounds crazy (at least as crazy as the discussion around net neutrality) right? New ideas can only thrive in old structures if unique space is created for them to grow and blossom. What does that space look like for ID and who is truly able to provide it?
The approach that CARE has taken to initiate the strategic exploration of a solution for data interoperability sounds appropriate. Humanitarian ID involves many other stakeholders who need to take active part in the discussion. Apart from humanitarians and private companies, Governments need to form part of the follow up of these discussions.
As I arrive in San Francisco I am confident we can find a way to see technology as a powerful tool to improve the collective outcome of our work for the sole benefit of the people we aim to serve. We just need to find a powerful enough convener so we can define the technical standards that should underpin the solution. Any ideas?
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