5 Facts About Digital Identity’s Role in Poverty Alleviation

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SEATTLE — An estimated 40 percent of the world’s people are now connected to the internet. In a world of avatars, online profiles and endless information, what is the impact of internet access and digital identity on economic and political empowerment?

Development experts have long considered internet access a key tool for poverty alleviation, a way of connecting vulnerable people to property ownership, education and political awareness. But the U.S. is now collaborating with international donors to ensure that digital access is used as a way to establish the legal and political identity of people living in poverty, especially vulnerable persons like women, refugees and ethnic minorities. But how can legal digital identity help alleviate poverty?

  1. Legal identity, previously a separate entity from digital identity, has always been a critical part of a person’s access to rights, citizenship and empowerment. Vulnerable persons living in poverty have often been denied or left out of access to government-issued forms of identification, including passports, driver’s licenses and personal identity cards. Without legal identity, a person legally doesn’t exist. It becomes impossible to travel, work, apply for housing, purchase property or gain access to essential services without some kind of legal identification. Some states have used access to identification as a form of ethnic or cultural discrimination, including some cases in which names were changed or manipulated to suit state goals or views of identity (as in cases of the Dalit in India or people of Turkish descent in Bulgaria).
  2. Legal and digital identity are generally much more difficult for women to secure. The case of the Dalit community in Nepal is an excellent example: while the Dalit people have long been denied government recognition and basic civil rights, recent studies show how access to legal identity is still an issue, especially among adult women. While online verification and other forms of digital identification are becoming more accessible and common, many vulnerable persons still face administrative, geographical and financial barriers in accessing forms of identification.
  3. Community activists are beginning to work to empower members of vulnerable groups to find ways to access identification. Beginning in 2011, the Dalit NGO Federation (DNF) helped to train 35 community workers in several districts, who educate community members and collaborate with government officials to make accessing identity safer and easier. This has resulted in over 40,000 Nepalese people of the Dalit community achieving access to citizenship certificates. Activists around the world are continuing this work; the U.S. has collaborated with USAID and other groups to help make this a priority in international aid and development goals.
  4. Approximately 1.5 billion people around the world do not have access to either legal nor digital identity. Digital identity, which is often close to legal identity, implies access to an application, device or other established means of identity through the internet. This means that over a fifth of the world’s population is essentially invisible, living without any kind of physical or digital record of themselves. This leaves people vulnerable to political, economic, social and legal exclusion, which can encourage trafficking, prostitution and other forms of labor exploitation. The U.S. is partnering with USAID and the U.N. to help encourage more access to digital identity for vulnerable persons.
  5. This month saw the arrival of the ID2020 Annual Summit, a collaborative effort between industry leaders in the digital world, NGOs, governments, technology innovators and other cross-industry experts. Their purpose? To discuss and work toward the goal of a legal digital identity for every person without identification by the year 2020. They aim to provide such identity to at least one billion at-risk people. Representatives from the U.S. included Ambassador Sarah Mendelson, the U.S. Representative for Economic and Social Affairs of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Ambassador Mendelson gave a stirring address in which she called the U.S. and its partners to action on the issue of digital identity and trafficking. She discussed the role of the U.S. in an initiative called “The Dignity Partnership to End Forced Labor” as part of a larger effort to examine cross-cutting themes, goals and targets of the 2030 U.N. Agenda.

Legal and digital identity are increasingly intertwined in a quickly changing market and global economy, and the U.S. is establishing itself as part of the solution to problems of digital invisibility. Legal and digital identity is one way that sustainable development efforts will continue to fight against global poverty.

Eliza Campbell

Photo: Flickr

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