Covid-19 spurs national plans to give citizens digital identities

MOSIP, an open-source platform developed in India, will be central to many of those efforts

WHEN MILLIONS of migrant workers were forced by India’s sudden covid lockdown to return to their villages from the cities where they worked, many feared destitution. But Aadhaar, the country’s pioneering biometric ID system, came to the rescue. Under an income scheme for farmers launched in 2014 that would have been impossible without Aadhaar, $1.5bn was transferred digitally and at speed into the bank accounts of 30m people, with little waste or fraud and almost no distribution cost.

Because 1bn accounts are linked to people’s Aadhaar identity numbers, India has been able to channel help to where it has been most needed with remarkable efficiency. Contrast that with America, where 90m paper cheques were laboriously sent through the mail, accompanied by a signed letter from President Donald Trump.

Covid has had a way both of exposing the weakest links in societies and of acting as a spur to innovation. Rich countries without national digital-ID systems can scrape through, thanks to myriad other ways people have of proving who they are—driving licences, credit cards, social-security numbers and so on. But for poor countries, the problem of getting covid-related help to their most vulnerable citizens is made infinitely more difficult when you do not know who they are or what services, such as health care and income support, they are entitled to.

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