Market Trends

Promoting Accountability in Foreign Assistance through Biometrics

Fraud, waste and abuse are significant problems in the assistance sector. From ghost beneficiaries to “leakage” from aid warehouses, the entire foreign assistance supply chain is vulnerable to exploitation. This is not merely a theoretical problem – it is a reality which impacts assistance operations around the world every day.

There are many examples:

  • A report by the UN Security Council found that up to half of World Food Programme assistance to Somalia never made it to intended beneficiaries. Thirty percent of aid was skimmed by local partners and local World Food Program personnel, ten percent by ground transporters and five to ten percent by armed groups.
  • The WFP reported over $10 million in unaccounted for assistance in 2011, and acknowledged that the true number would likely never be known due to insufficient reporting from the field. An estimated twenty percent of all losses were due to theft.
  • The US Department of Justice regularly prosecutes individuals for fraudulent disaster relief claims. In one case, a woman made eight separate claims for Red Cross assistance totaling over $12,000, despite the fact that she was ineligible for any assistance.
  • In 2014, three individuals were indicted on charges of false claims in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, having received over $70,000 in assistance funds.

The Need for Accountability

Effective assistance systems require strong internal controls which protect both beneficiaries and donors from the losses incurred through fraud, waste and abuse. While most governments, international organizations, and NGOs have built sophisticated supply chains, the weaknesses in accountability become greater as those supply chains stretch into areas with weak governance structures.

In particular, those supply chains often lack that “last mile” accountability which ensures that assistance is delivered to those who need it most. The official balance sheets for assistance organizations are airtight – from a procurement perspective, donor funds can be tied to contracts for goods and services. Yet the connection between those balance sheets and beneficiaries in the field is rarely demonstrable.

Biometrics in Foreign Assistance

Biometrics – the use of physical characteristics to identify individuals – offer a powerful tool for accountability in assistance operations. Recognizing the promise of this technology, international organizations such as UNHCR and the WFP have started to experiment with the use of biometrics as a tool for accountability in delivery of assistance in recent years.

The workflow is simple. When assistance organizations first encounter beneficiaries, they are enrolled into a database which holds 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 of 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 the “leakage” which is all too common in many aid supply chains.

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 Program (WFP) 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 $1.8m 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 1297%, rising to 2670% over the full ten year term of the project.

The report’s authors observed: “The biometrics identification system for food distribution can be characterized as a good practice to be considered as an effective tool for other country operations in the region. It provides better and more reliable statistics to management and partners. It also addresses donors’ requests for further oversight controls, and contributes in 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.”

Biometrics as an Accountability Tool

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

Biometrics are reliable: 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% accuracy, even in databases which hold hundreds of millions of unique identities.

Biometrics are flexible: Biometrics, by contrast, can never be lost, stolen or misappropriated. They are always available as a form of identity verification which 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: By eliminating the distance between a person and their identity, biometrics allow for a direct connection between a physical person and the identity they are claiming. This brings an extraordinary level of confidence and accountability to the identity management process.

Biometrics are cost-effective: Even in small-scale deployments, biometric systems are proven to pay for themselves through cost savings and prevention of the “leakage” which is all too common in assistance operations.  Beyond rapidly recouping their up-front cost, Crossmatch solutions also provide aid organizations the data they need to track results – a boon for donors who want concrete proof of their impact on the ground.

Interested in learning more about the role biometrics can play in your assistance operations? Read more about our foreign assistance and disaster relief solution here.

Ben Ball is the Government Market Director at Crossmatch, where he oversees market intelligence and strategic outreach to government customers around the world. A ten year veteran of the Federal government, Ben was a Foreign Service Officer and worked in the Department of Homeland Security.

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