Promoting Accountability in Foreign Assistance through Biometrics

Promoting Accountability in Foreign Assistance through Biometrics

Biometrics in Assistance

Biometrics – the use of physical characteristics to identify individuals – offer a powerful tool for accountability in assistance operations. 

Once confined to law enforcement and border control applications, biometrics are now widely used for a variety of use cases to provide a definitive link between people and transactions. From accessing your phone to voting to logging on to your computer, biometrics are quickly becoming the standard for secure identity.

In recent years, international organizations such as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme have started to experiment with the use of biometrics as a tool for accountability in delivery of assistance. 

The workflow is simple. 

When assistance organizations first encounter beneficiaries, they enroll them into a database holding biographic, biometric, and eligibility information.  In subsequent interactions, the organizations can verify the identity and eligibility of a beneficiary through a simple fingerprint check.

Each time assistance is distributed, the system logs an encounter with an established identity, connecting the form and quantity of aid to an actual person.

With biometric systems in place, assistance organizations can be certain that they are delivering aid to the right people, at the right place and time.  Biometrics eliminate the possibility of fraud, waste, and abuse by ensuring that only eligible beneficiaries receive the assistance they truly need.

Connecting biometrics to an assistance delivery record gives aid agencies the ability to target their efforts for maximum impact.  By providing an assured method of accounting for who has received benefits, biometrics allow for real-time monitoring of impacts in the field.  Rather than worrying about the potential impact of fraud, waste, and abuse on donation flows, assistance organizations can definitively account for exactly where all their money is going in the field.

Biometrics can also be used for internal controls.  From warehouse access to tracing who is delivering assistance in the field—biometrics provide a powerful tool for preventing fraud, waste, and abuse through leakage, which is all too common in many aid supply chains. 

Biometrics as an Accountability Tool

As demonstrated by both UNHCR and the WFP, biometrics offer a particularly intriguing value proposition to those in the assistance field looking to combat fraud, waste, and abuse.

Biometrics are reliable: In most assistance scenarios, creating a reliable, consistent identity for individuals can be a significant challenge.  Most beneficiaries have little to no documentation, making the establishment of identity extremely difficult. Once an identity is confirmed, verification presents a similarly vexing problem as documentation can go missing or be tampered with.

Biometrics offer identifying characteristics, which reliably match against known records.  The sophisticated algorithms of today’s matching engines can identify biometric records with over 99.6 percent accuracy—even in databases holding hundreds of millions of unique identities.

Biometrics are flexible: In field operations where the security situation is fluid, documents are an administrative burden that many beneficiaries and assistance organizations would rather avoid. Biometrics, by contrast, can never be lost, stolen, or misappropriated. 

They are always available as a form of identity verification that is quick and easy to use.  Biometric systems require little in the way of field connectivity or back-end support. Today’s mobile biometric devices can hold databases of up to one million unique records with no requirement for internet connectivity.

Biometrics are fraud-proof: Documents create an opening for fraud, waste, and abuse by way of their nature as a physical object transferable from one person to another. This transferability means that verification is always going to be against the document, which may not correspond to the person who holds the document.

Biometrics allow for a direct connection between a physical person and the identity they are claiming by eliminating the distance between that person and their identity.  This brings an extraordinary level of confidence and accountability to the identity-management process.

Biometrics are cost-effective: Documents are a burden for providers of assistance, who must build the supply chains and workflows necessary to create a reliable physical credential. 

Verification against that credential can also be costly as the infrastructure and staff time required to match identity information quickly adds up.

Biometrics require no issuance mechanism or physical supply chain—all the information is held in back-end databases.  As long as the enrollment is of sufficient quality, verification procedures only require a simple low-cost biometric reader.

Biometrics as an Enabler of Cash Assistance

In recent years, cash assistance has become more prominent in foreign assistance and disaster relief.  Unlike traditional forms of assistance such as food aid, cash offers beneficiaries the flexibility to fill their own needs, according to their unique priorities. 

In rapidly changing refugee or disaster scenarios, cash has significant advantages over static assistance models, many of which fail to evolve with the context of those in need.

But the primary advantage of cash assistance–its flexibility and ease of use–is also its primary disadvantage.  The limited use of food aid or vouchers provides a relatively narrow window for fraud, waste, and abuse, as these goods can often be traced back to a provider.  Cash, on the other hand, is far more difficult to trace, making it both less accountable and harder to connect with outcomes.

Biometrics offer a way for assistance organizations to bring accountability to cash distributions, providing a hedge against the dangers of fraud, waste, and abuse inherent in such a flexible form of aid. 

By connecting beneficiaries to cash assistance distributions, biometrics also provide the ability to trace outcomes back to individuals–a valuable tool for monitoring and evaluation purposes.

Many payment companies active in the assistance sphere now offer biometric systems in recognition of their contribution to accountability in field operations.  Connecting a biometric identifier to payment systems gives assistance organizations even greater fidelity in tracing the impact and use of cash aid, and building out the data sets highlighting areas of greatest need.

The Measurable Impact of Biometrics

Even small pilot projects using biometrics in foreign assistance have demonstrated a significant return on investment.  In 2015, the Inspectors General of UNHCR and the World Food Programme jointly released a report on the impact of biometrics on a food distribution operation in Kenya. 

The results were striking and unequivocal. 

The Inspectors General found that biometrics prevented US $1.8 million in assistance losses every month. The system rapidly paid for itself, and its low operating costs provided even greater value for the project over time. 

The actualized five-year return on investment was 1,297 percent, rising to 2,670 percent over the full ten-year term of the project. [1]

“Biometric identification systems for food distribution can be characterized as a good practice to be considered as effective tools for other country operations in the region. It provides better and more reliable statistics to management and partners,” The report’s authors commented. “It also addresses donor requests for further oversight controls, and contributes to building confidence across the matrix of government, management, staff, donors, implementing and operational partners, and refugees—while preserving the confidentiality and data protection of the beneficiaries,” The report’s authors added.[2]

The future of biometrics as a tool in assistance programs appears bright indeed. 

With growing awareness of the returns on investment for fraud prevention, benefit tracking, and internal controls, international organizations and NGOs are formulating new roles for biometrics in their operational models.

As the follow-on value of biometrics to beneficiaries and donors becomes increasingly apparent, biometrics are likely to be a growing part of assistance missions around the world.

To learn more about biometrics and other technology innovations for aid and development, join Crossmatch at the Aid & Development Asia Summit 2017, taking place on the 14-15 June in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. For more information or to register visit:

[1] UNHCR, “Joint Inspection of the Biometrics Identification System for Food Distribution in Kenya”, August 2015,
[2] UNHCR, “Joint Inspection of the Biometrics Identification System for Food Distribution in Kenya”, August 2015,

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