How can digital IDs facilitate humanitarian aid?

by Joseph Oliveros | May 26, 2021 | Insights and Inspirations

Invisibility of the vulnerable: a paradox for humanitarians

“The humanitarian sector cannot help people if it fails to see them. [People] who lack proof of identity are often effectively out of sight when it comes to receiving the assistance they need.”

Leaving No One Behind: IFRC 2018 World Disasters Report 

Humanitarians are confronted with a paradox. Identifying the people most in need is central to providing them with assistance. However, some of the most vulnerable people may be so precisely because they are hard to identify. Indeed, in its 2018 World Disasters Report Leaving No One Behind, IFRC found that one of the main challenges for disaster response and risk reduction programmes lies in identifying whom to help. 

Several factors may contribute to people being “invisible” to humanitarian organizations. Not having had their birth registered, for instance, can have lifelong consequences for someone needing to interact with institutions. Alternatively, an irregular migrant may even wish to remain undetectable, including to those trying to help them, for fear of forced return. 

The 2018 World Disasters Report recommended that governments and humanitarian organizations “guard against blind spots in assistance for people lacking government-issued identification”, because the inability to officially prove one’s identity only exacerbates the effects of other factors of invisibility. In its efforts to leave no one behind, IFRC is now exploring the potential for digital IDs to alleviate these difficulties.

A new report commissioned by the IFRC, Digital Identity: An Analysis for the Humanitarian Sector, explores the opportunities and risks of digital ID solutions in humanitarian situations. Through a series of expert interviews and case studies, the report delves into humanitarian contexts where organizations are already piloting digital ID solutions, giving insight into technical, ethical and sustainability considerations.

One of the ways digital identities are established is by linking biometric data (e.g., fingerprint) so aid recipients could be authenticated with little to no paper documentation. This comes with some risks related to data protection, which need to be assessed properly prior to implementation. Photo credit: Kenya Red Cross

Uptake of digital ID is growing globally

“In the digital age, a digital identity for all is the only possible way to make sure that no one is left behind.”

Karl Steinacker, UNHCR

In recent years, interest in digital ID solutions has been increasing in many areas of society. Examples abound in the private sector of digital ID in various forms enabling access to services.

In humanitarian contexts, meanwhile, digital ID solutions are gaining ground more slowly. Partly, this is due to the precise terminology in this area being difficult to pin down, with the new report noting that “finding a common glossary on digital identity in the humanitarian sector is the issue which [interviewees want] to see most immediately addressed”. Also, a particularly cautious approach is required when extending the principle of doing no harm to the digital sphere – after all, digital data must be seen as an extension of a person’s physical self and afforded the same level of protection. 

Despite these limitations, humanitarian organizations are piloting projects to assess the feasibility of introducing digital IDs. The Kenya Red Cross, for example, has been working with several partners to implement digital ID solutions in cash assistance. One pilot project, reviewed in the new report, saw them team up with the Netherlands Red Cross’ 510 team to enable participants to self-register and create their own digital IDs. Another pilot is currently ongoing in conjunction with IFRC and a consortium of NGOs (Norwegian Red Cross, Norwegian Refugee Council, Norwegian Church Aid and Save the Children Norway). This one is further exploring the use of digital IDs to distribute cash assistance to people who have no official IDs in low connectivity areas and who have been particularly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Elsewhere, the Australian Red Cross has developed a digital wallet to enable volunteers to store their training credentials. They have also initiated the creation of the Trust Alliance to collaborate with humanitarian, academic and technology groups to research and develop an ethical and trustworthy digital identity ecosystem.

Findings from such projects will help inform the sector at large about the specific challenges associated with applying digital ID solutions to situation of humanitarian need.

Examples of two applications developed by Gravity and Netherlands Red Cross’ 510 team that allow for the creation of digital IDs and sharing attributes to organizations that need to verify the end user’s personal information. Photo credits: Gravity & Netherlands Red Cross / 510

Opportunities and challenges for digital ID in the humanitarian sector

A notable strength of digital technology is its flexibility. Beyond proving their identity, members of affected communities can use digital “wallets” to store credentials such as skills or language training certification to prove they meet minimum criteria for employment, as was piloted in Turkey by the technology vendor Gravity, one of the case studies reviewed in the new report. Such wallets can also be used to store other digital forms of credentials that could easily be lost or destroyed in a disaster, such as proof of land ownership or health records.

In a world where digital IDs were the norm, organizations could potentially see increased efficiency in their registration processes. Furthermore, if such digital IDs were recognized by several (or even all!) humanitarian organizations, this would help build trust and facilitate collaboration throughout the sector. As a result, for someone interacting with multiple aid organizations, being able to show a single, digital form of ID instead of repeating their details several times (including potentially having to relive trauma when recounting their life history) would save considerable amounts of time and energy. 

But digital IDs are not a panacea. Indeed, the report outlines several limitations. The technology costs time and money to put in place – “2-3 years working at full speed” in the case of one report interviewee’s organization. Critically, humanitarian staff and volunteers, as well as people they attend to, may lack the digital literacy skills needed to implement and take advantage of such technology: upskilling will be required across the board. Digital solutions also bring with them concerns about data privacy, which must be addressed from the outset when programmes are being planned. Meanwhile, the humanitarian sector must bring about a new culture of collaboration with industry vendors of digital identification solutions to encourage the latter to adapt their products to specific humanitarian requirements.

Example of a QR code with fictitious personal data, which is generated by the Kenya Red Cross and printed so it could be used for aid distribution in low connectivity areas and where community members do not have access to mobile phones or have good literacy levels to use digital applications. Photo credit: Gravity and Kenya Red Cross


Overall, IFRC’s new report, Digital Identity: An Analysis for the Humanitarian Sector reveals that, despite certain difficulties that must be resolved, the potential advantages of using digital ID technology are manifold, for programme participants and humanitarian organizations alike. Ultimately, by being able to prove their identity, those in need of humanitarian services will become more visible to the organizations providing them. In this way, humanitarians can ensure their programmes get closer to reaching their goal of leaving no one behind.

This research was commissioned by the IFRC as the technical lead of the Dignified Identities in Cash Assistance (DIGID) project and carried out by the Oxford Centre for Technology and Development. To find out more, you can download and read the report Digital Identity: An Analysis for the Humanitarian Sector. The DIGID consortium also held a webinar featuring one of the authors introducing this report, as part of Data and Digital Week in April 2021. 


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