A birth certificate is a document of almost incalculable value. It allows us to go to school, prove our citizenship, exercise the right to vote, access healthcare, and open a bank account. A birth certificate gives someone a unique legal identity.
Those of us living in highly developed countries take our birth certificates for granted. For us, births and deaths are routinely and accurately documented. Yet more than 100 developing countries lack functional civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems, and 230 million children under the age of five haven’t been registered. Some countries like Malawi and Ethiopia have registration rates in the single digits. Experts estimate that there are 1.5 billion people without a legal identity. That’s the equivalent of all of China going untracked.
This is more than merely unfortunate — it is unconscionable, as the lack of CRVS systems has profoundly harmful implications for individuals and for international development. Without a legal identity, children risk being denied a spot in school or a needed vaccine. Later they will struggle to open a bank account or buy a mobile telephone — both critical to participate in the modern economy. If they try to exercise their right to vote and are turned away at the polling place, they will have no recourse. And if they’re trafficked, they will lack the necessary documentation to prove where they came from and get to safety.
More broadly, inadequate civil registries are a hindrance to businesses, governments, and NGOs.
Consider traditional financial systems, which require verifiable identities. In countries with inadequate registries, the tools for borrowing money and mitigating financial risks are largely out of reach. As just one example, microfinance institutions working in these settings often have to charge crushingly high interest rates, mostly because the cost of administering a loan goes up dramatically when it’s impossible to identify borrowers. This stymies local economies and development.
As for policymakers, it becomes impossible to accurately plan and budget for government services when they don’t know their region’s actual population (the “denominator”). It’s not uncommon to see reported immunization coverage rates well beyond 100% in underperforming districts — a clear sign that governments don’t know how many children they’re trying to reach — much less identifying specifically who they’re trying to reach. Despite the best intentions, this missing data guarantees that money is wasted and lives are lost.
The problem is enormous — but we’re finally poised to do something about it. Three fundamental shifts in the past few decades have paved the way for broad-scale improvements in civil registration:
Growing Political Willpower: the launch of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, brought unprecedented attention to the vital importance of data and accountability. In our era of monitoring and evaluation, NGOs and governments regularly report on their successes and failures — and need their people to do so well. There’s a groundswell of political support for civil registration.
Rise of Mobile Computing: Just as critically, mobile technology has “eaten the world ” with remarkable speed. There are 3 billion iOs and Android computers and 2.5 billion smartphones currently in use, and this technology is widespread in both developed and developing countries. An estimated 40% of people in sub-Saharan Africa have a mobile phone. In Malawi, where birth registration rates are only 2%, recent data suggests that 4% of the population is on Facebook — and climbing. That means there are almost certainly Malawians with a Facebook presence who don’t exist in the country’s vital records.
Expanding Delivery Infrastructure: There have also been improvements in the infrastructure needed to reach and register children. Since 2000, significant investments in maternal and child health, led by Gavi and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, have built robust systems to vaccinate children, with life-saving vaccines now widespread in the 73 poorest countries on earth. Somewhat remarkably, global coverage rates with these critical vaccines now far surpass registration rates, with 34 countries where coverage with basic vaccines (DTP3) exceeds registration rates by more than 20%. This is an opportunity: these programs reach children just when you’d hope to register them, so there’s a valuable opportunity to piggyback on this success.
Political willpower, technology, and delivery infrastructure — these three components are the building blocks of a functional CRVS system. Now is the time to capitalize on recent progress on each.
So what technology do we need to build? Luckily, this is the “easy part.”
Fundamentally, “all” that is needed is a central data set with unique identifiers for every individual. That’s 7 billion individual records — a big number, but not that big. Beyond that, there are a few key requirements needed regardless of how the database is constructed:
- The data needs to be secured with the best encryption available and with thoughtfully designed security protocols that ensure the data can be used for good, and only good.
- Interoperability is key — this database should talk to, rather than replace, the diverse tools currently used to collect and manage data. Remember, the use cases for how data will be added to the database vary, and some of the data will be collected in off-grid settings.
In its simplest conception, the path to building the necessary technology requires mapping the landscape of databases and collection tools currently in use, cataloguing the data points collected, and creating a standardized “translation dictionary.” Once the existing data is understood, skilled technologists can simply build a database system in which each individual has a unique identification number and where the relevant data is fluently translated from their national database.
This universal database would nominally be “owned” by the United Nations or another similar non-governmental actor, but it would be governed by national governments and designed to accommodate variability in national rules, structures and regulatory frameworks. Each country would be responsible for the data captured on behalf of its citizens and would provide all the “consumer-facing” services needed to collect the identity data. Because all existing databases would be included in the original landscape assessment, countries would be free to append whatever national system they wanted. And for countries without an existing digital CRVS system — or for those wanting to upgrade — the standardized dictionary would allow countries to easily license off-the-shelf identity management technology mimicking the global system. Even easier, best-practices national ID systems, such as Estonia’s, could be easily replicated across borders.
Meanwhile, some experts, including many attendees of the ID2020 conference held this month at the UN, are proposing something more radical: a blockchain-enabled distributed network approach. This approach would use the main technological innovation behind the bitcoin cryptocurrency — the blockchain — to store identity data. (You can learn about the underlying technology here)
Those who advocate for using blockchain technology for identity management say the approach would have several advantages. First, it would likely be far more secure than even the best-protected central database. There hasn’t been a single security breach in eight years of blockchain use. Second, it allows for individual records to be held outside of national databases, which is better suited to a world with nearly 60 million forcibly displaced individuals and another 10 million stateless. And third, it would place ownership of an individual’s data in their own hands rather than those of a potentially unreliable or untrustworthy government.
But in considering the blockchain-based solution, technological benefits pose complex philosophical questions. The central database model above is a fundamentally country-centric approach — it respects the notion that identity is conferred by national governments. Many of the blockchain enthusiasts, in contrast, want to create a “self-sovereign” identity system that places ownership of an individual’s data in their own hands, rather than in the hands of governments. To set up such a system would be a profound statement about the role of national governments in creating and managing individual identities.
Beyond the philosophical questions there are purely pragmatic reasons a “self-sovereign” identity system may be difficult to implement. As discussed above, the delta between vaccine coverage rates and registration rates in many countries indicate that existing government programs have significant reach. Piggybacking on these programs will be critical to finding and registering every child. Leveraging the relationships between individuals and the private sector, including mobile phones and Facebook accounts, provides another valuable delivery touch point, but relying solely on these risks missing those most in need, e.g. marginalized populations, those living off the grid, or the “last girl.”
Or perhaps there’s a hybrid model providing some of the benefits of each system: national management of individual records connected by a private blockchain-based interoperability layer. This blockchain layer could ensure cross-border communication and allow seamless integration of individual records for stateless individuals. And because the blockchain would be established with clear, specific protocols for what data is shared, and when, countries could participate in the exchange confident that all governments were sharing on even terms. The technology could facilitate integrity and trust, without placing the data itself out in the open.
Weighing the costs and benefits of these approaches — and the many more I’m sure will emerge — will require careful policy analysis and rich dialogue among global stakeholders. There won’t be any easy answers.
The success of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, provides a useful guide to how this project could move forward. Gavi was founded in 2000 with a simple goal: to immunize every child in the developing world against common childhood diseases. Gavi’s founders recognized of a market failure: while vaccines could provide significant protection to children in the developing world, vaccine prices at the time were far out of reach for developing countries. Gavi orchestrates global dissemination of a technology — immunizations — by analyzing which vaccines to support, negotiating vaccine prices, and funding vaccine purchases. And while Gavi and other international organizations play a supporting role in vaccine delivery, this function is left primarily to national governments, which promotes sustainability well beyond Gavi’s direct support. The outcome: the very best vaccine technologies are brought to market, while the needs of countries — and their people — are held tantamount.
The identity movement has set a similar goal: to provide a legal identity to every child on the planet. And the inability of developing countries to create and maintain civil registration technology for their populations is a similar market failure. As with vaccines, identity management systems are a technology that is needed worldwide. Private sector companies or the open-source community could easily build the underlying technology of CRVS. However, it should not be left to individual countries or digitally-challenged development agencies to develop. Had Gavi required each of the 73 countries eligible for it’s support to develop proprietary vaccines, the organization would have never gotten off the ground. A Gavi-like international body is needed here to orchestrate the policies and standards for a global CRVS system, and to move at speed so that this critical technology can be developed and implemented.
This Gavi-like group may conclude that a “self-sovereign” blockchain-based identity system is the right answer, or maybe not. But careful analysis is essential for the global identity movement to build the credibility and buy-in necessary for success. Ultimately, this isn’t about technology, just as universal access to immunizations isn’t about making the vaccines — the technology is just a tool, and any solution created will only be as valuable as its delivery. What’s critical is ensuring that the ultimate goal — a legal identity for the 1.5B people currently without — takes priority over any notions about how to accomplish that goal.
Providing everyone on the planet with a legal identity would expand access to democracy, unlock economic and legal rights, facilitate the provision of healthcare and education, and accelerate global economic development. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the implications if we were to get this right. Let’s get to it, with the urgency and the humility this goal demands.