Biometric registration aids conflict regions, but gaps still exist

Biometric verification of beneficiaries in Nzulo displacement site in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by: International Organization for Migration / CC BY-NC-ND

ABIDJAN — U.N. agencies tracking displaced persons are increasingly using biometric registration to provide real-time data, limit paperwork, and improve efficiency. Biometrics can help better target aid, particularly in conflict areas, where personal identification systems are weak.

For the moment, however, different agencies often rely on different systems, risking overlap and duplication. In northeastern Nigeria, for example, both the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Programme are registering the displaced in areas impacted by Boko Haram. The two agencies have deployed biometrics in geographically separated locations to avoid duplication, although overlaps are still possible due to the highly mobile nature of IDPs in the region.

IOM and WFP are working to create interoperability, but the situation is indicative of the challenges that aid agencies and NGOs increasingly face as they digitalize. While meant to improve inefficiencies, incompatible systems that cannot communicate with one another can instead lead to new headaches.

“If beneficiaries are registered in both systems, the efforts and the caseload that is receiving assistance are duplicated, [so] it is paramount to have these two systems that are interoperable,” said Amalraj Nallainathan, an IOM information management officer. “We are working very closely with WFP to develop the interoperability module,” he said. “We will hopefully complete this by the end of the year.”

Biometric registration is commonly used for national identification systems, driving permits, and voter registration. Information such as fingerprints, iris patterns, DNA, or signatures can be collected to specifically identify participants.

Humanitarians are among the latest to adopt the technology. “Unfortunately we are getting to the point where there are so many humanitarian crises around the world, so many competing emergencies, and we will be looking at how to properly allocate resources,” Henry Kwenin, coordinator of the IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix based in Maiduguri, Nigeria, told Devex.

Biometrics systems can help aid agencies better understand the populations they are trying to assist and help guide funding allocations. Humanitarians can more quickly detect the onset of illnesses and avoid aid misuse and duplication of recipients. Local agents work closely with community leaders to understand the dynamics of each location and provide up to minute updates for tracking purposes. System settings also allow for IDPs to move locations and not have their assistance affected.

When IOM deployed the system in South Sudan, for example, “we noticed that the population calculation was reduced by 45 percent, because during the manual registration there is a high chance that people can recycle names in order to gain more assistance,” said Nallainathan, who oversaw biometric systems in South Sudan before transferring to Maiduguri. He said one site recorded $1 million a month in savings using biometrics.

IOM’s DTM has registered 1.2 million displaced people in northeastern Nigeria, in areas impacted by Boko Haram. Individuals are registered into a computer database using fingerprints and other identifying information. Following registration, each household receives a biometric card that states the number of family members.

The World Food Programme, meanwhile, has registered 790,000 people in the region using its SCOPE database. SCOPE is used globally by WFP and “has proven to be an effective tool in beneficiary data management under any of WFP’s transfer modalities,” WFP Nigeria Deputy Director Sarah Longford told Devex in a written statement.

Beneficiaries are registered for a cash-based transfer program with future plans of expanding to include in-kind food assistance and nutrition assistance. SCOPE also facilitates tracking of registered IDPs upon return to their place of origin or other temporary sites.

Although both agencies agreed on the importance of linking their systems, developing a single uniform database for all U.N. specialized agencies could prove challenging, both for users and system administrators, Nallainathan explained. Combined databases would require more user verification to ensure that proprietary information is only available to those using the information to determine humanitarian assistance.

Biometric registration must now be tailored to meet humanitarian needs while protecting the vulnerable populations benefitting from this source of data collection.

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.