Identity and inclusion: When do digital identities help the poor?


We tend to think of having a formal identity as an enabler for social and economic inclusion, but in fact identity can have entirely the opposite effect. Once socioeconomic interactions are based on a standardized notion of identity, it is likely that social status based on past achievements, family histories, personal connections, political backing, wealth and education levels will influence socioeconomic outcomes — thereby potentially reinforcing the established class hierarchy. Systems that are based on anonymity might in fact be the most equitable and inclusive, in the sense of ensuring equal participation by all, by systematically stripping out social status.

But anonymous systems carry a high cost in terms of efficiency. Reputations would be impossible to establish, contracts would be hard to enforce, and there would be more insecurity as it would be much harder to track and clamp down on illicit activities. It is therefore not at all certain that the poorer segments of the population would be better off in absolute terms if the economy worked on the basis of anonymity.

The need for digital identities for inclusive access

In fact, giving lower-income people digital identities would make it possible for them to participate in the modern digital economy in many ways: to open accounts and receive moneys from anyone, assert their rights over digital services they have contracted and digital assets they have purchased, settle disputes, etc. But establishing a formally recognized identity can be a major hurdle in itself, especially in countries that do not have digitized national ID schemes.

It is ironic that the difficulty of establishing formal identity in the first place often prevents so many lower-income, and especially rural, people from accessing digital services. Identity systems with selective coverage of the population create a double whammy of inequality: on the one hand, these partial systems help the haves to carry their social and economic status symbols and reputations into every market interaction they are engaged in, and on the other they negate digital visibility and access to digital services for the have not´s.

We argue in a new research paper that it should be the government´s responsibility to ensure that every citizen in fact has a digital identity, not merely to create a platform that enables people to have digital identities. The Indian government´s Aadhar push to provide everyone in India with a unique number ID linked to biometrics is a good example of such a policy.

The demands of identity verification systems

The problem is that different policy agendas converge on the issue of identity and have different requirements for a digital identity platform. What works as an identify standard for financial systems may not be good enough for law enforcement agencies. The risk is that governments adopt the highest standard, with the result that the inclusion agenda and the needs of the poor are ignored.

If there is no centralized government system for identity, then what we need is a system that:

  1. Lets the issue of identity be resolved in the first instance within the communities where poor people live, shop and work (e.g. through attestation by known local figures)
  2. Draws people into seeking and improving their digital identities over time, much in the way that they develop their social network over time.

This is the notion of social identity. Let people with meager resources help each other overcome their limitations: each may have very little voice, but collectively they represent a potentially vast information system for official identification purposes. That is hard to reconcile with the way governments and formal institutions tend to handle identity verification: in silos, contained within databases and cards. We need more flexible notions of identity, which build layers of identity information and verification through social networks – as well as bureaucratized ID-seeking processes.