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Biometrics in Foreign Assistance: A Systems Approach


Biometrics are an increasingly popular feature of foreign assistance packages.

Electronic fingerprinting equipment is given to Mexico to help stem the tide of unaccompanied minors into the United States. USAID is funding a biometric registry for Kyrgyzstan to facilitate the automation of government services. UNHCR uses iris scans to distribute cash assistance to refugees in Jordan. The benefits of biometrics for good governance and security are leading to a dramatic expansion of their use throughout the developing world.

A Closer Look at the Details

Unfortunately, not all assistance grants involving biometrics are created equal. All too often, governments and organizations will provide a piece of equipment, but fail to provide the software, integration and “back-end” databases which make it valuable.

The headline looks great: “Biometric equipment bolsters security and accountability.” However, without the software, databases and integration, the biometric readers are basically useless – the equivalent of sending someone a DVD without asking if they have a player.

The lack of a systems approach is a particular problem for “re-gifted” equipment. In many cases, governments will take surplus or used biometric readers and send them to another country as a form of development assistance. Although their intentions are good, the used devices are usually configured for certain users and specific functions in the sending country. Without a significant software overhaul or integration into the receiving country’s systems, the equipment cannot serve its intended purpose.

Key Factors for Program Success

To be of use, biometric equipment must be reconfigured to be compatible with the receiving country’s database formats and quality standards. Without instructions on how to make these changes or assistance with systems integration, many countries simply set the equipment aside. Even worse, recipient countries complain that the equipment “doesn’t work”, tarnishing the manufacturer’s brand overseas.

Warranties and support services are also key factors in the effectiveness of biometric equipment sent to foreign governments through assistance packages. Used equipment is sometimes offloaded to foreign governments without the protection and service that comes with a warranty – a factor which often shortens its service life. Given the rapid developments in biometric technology, used equipment may no longer be supported by the manufacturer. This is frequently a key factor in the decision to unload the hardware in the first place, but one which does a disservice to the receiving country.

In order to be effective, assistance programs should use a systematic approach to biometrics. It’s not enough to just send the hardware and claim victory. Biometric equipment only delivers value when it is part of a workflow that includes software, databases, integration and end-user training. This usually requires close connections with manufacturers and system integrators who have the technical expertise necessary to make the equipment accomplish specific goals.

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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