There are an unprecedented 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide as a result of conflict, persecution or environmental disasters.
Perhaps the most glaring example is the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis which to date has displaced over 11 million people from their homes and resulted in 13.5 million people requiring humanitarian assistance. The sheer numbers alone of persons requiring assistance places enormous burdens on charitable organizations, NGOs and other groups scrambling to figure out how best to render aid.
Traditional Aid Distribution
Traditional methods of food distribution, for example, involve delivery of stock to some central staging area—a warehouse or other local distribution site—where it’s in turn distributed to beneficiaries. But the biggest flaw in that system is, in many cases, the only way to match beneficiaries with distributed food and track remaining stock is by manual record keeping.
For example, during the Darfur crisis in Sudan, beneficiaries were registered and handed out aid distribution cards. The source of the name lists originated from community leaders who conducted door-to-door head counts—likely inaccurate and lacking in accountability.
Even among the most fastidious organizations, tracking inventory and distribution aid using a manual system cannot eliminate numerous gaps and opportunities for fraud, waste and other forms of abuse.
Cash Assistance Programs
One method of rendering aid that’s been gaining traction is Cash-Based Transfer (CBT)—which rather than in-kind food assistance, distributes aid in the form of physical money, bank transfers, vouchers or debit cards. The World Food Programme estimated it reached 9.6 million people with over US$680 million in aid rendered via CBT between 2009 and 2014.
The shift toward CBT is largely driven by the system’s many advantages:
- Reduces the cost and logistical complexity of food assistance
- Gives beneficiaries greater control over their spending
- Stimulates trade by injecting cash into local economies
- Strengthens partnerships with governments
Still, some potential donors are hesitant because adequate mechanisms to ensure accountability may not be in place in areas requiring assistance. Do the benefits of providing cash and voucher assistance outweigh the risks? What happens in countries with weak banking systems or acute political conflict?
Challenges of Accountability
Without a history of official identification, citizens and governments are not likely to see the potential benefits of such a system—which are actually greater the less functional the existing system of identity is. Biometric identification can be well-suited for CBT assistance programs by ensuring the accountability and oversight donors require.
According to a report by the UNHCR, biometric identification systems for food distribution provide reliable statistics for management and addresses donor requests for strong oversight controls—in addition to demonstrating significant ROI.
The value of biometrics as an accountability tool positions it in positive light to field operators and others involved in foreign assistance due the many benefits:
- Reliability: sophisticated algorithms can ID biometric records with >99.6% accuracy
- Biometrics are flexible: mobile devices are field-deployable, no internet required
- Fraud-proof: makes direct connection between physical person and identity they present
- Cost-effective: requires no issuance mechanism or physical supply chain
The appeal of cash assistance may be highly appealing to NGOs and other organizations in food distribution due to its flexibility and ease of use but it’s also hard to track cash transactions which can invite fraud and leakage.
Biometrics on the other hand is a highly effective solution that lends itself to credible and repeatable accountability—something disaster relief organizations mandate for cash assistance programs. By matching beneficiaries with cash assistance distributions, biometrics provides a method for tracing outcomes back to individuals—a powerful tool for monitoring the impact of cash aid and identifying areas of greatest need.
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.