The World's Identity Crisis : The Indicator from Planet Money Around one in seven people do not have any official ID, according to the World Bank.

The World's Identity Crisis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Hey everyone, this is THE INDICATOR from Planet Money. I'm Cardiff Garcia, and I'm joined today in the studio by Darian Woods and his excellent Kiwi accent. Darian, how are ya?


GARCIA: (Laughter).

WOODS: That's not it. Yeah. I'm hamming it up.

GARCIA: Darian, you have brought us not just an indicator but a whole story to go along with that indicator.

WOODS: That's right. Today's indicator is 1 billion, and that's the number of people who don't have any official identification according to the World Bank. Nearly 1 in 7 people have no passport, no driver's license, not even a birth certificate.

GARCIA: So 1 in 7 people in the whole world don't have any kind of ID, and this is a serious problem, right?

WOODS: It can stop them from getting public services like food vouchers or opening a bank account. And that's what happens when the government in the country in which you live doesn't even register that you exist.

GARCIA: Yeah. And it's something that the World Bank is especially concerned about. And so you were at World Bank headquarters in April to witness exactly what the World Bank was trying to do to change that.

WOODS: I had to see it myself. I was hearing that a global faceless organization was encouraging governments to keep track of everybody, so I needed to know what was going on.

GARCIA: Yeah. It sounds scary when you put it that way, you know, like, some kind of dystopian vision.

WOODS: Those concerns are actually legitimate, and we're going to get into that in the show - why bad ID design can have deadly consequences. And we'll go to the World Bank to see what they're doing about it with a kind of "Shark Tank"-style pitch contest.


VYJAYANTI DESAI: The idea came because I was actually at a meeting that we had internally, and I heard somebody else talk about an innovation challenge for a country that they were doing. And I was thinking, we should think about doing something like that for ID.

GARCIA: That is Vyjayanti Desai, and it is her job to help places, countries, that want to build a good identification system for their citizens. She works at the World Bank.

WOODS: Would it be fair to say your job is to get a billion people an ID?

DESAI: No, no (laughter). So what we've been doing is supporting countries on their journey.

GARCIA: There's a reason she's committed to this. Vyjayanti says that the costs of not having an ID ends up hitting low-income people the worst.

DESAI: Even in the low-income countries, it's the bottom 20% of the population, the poorest 20%.

WOODS: Half of the 1 billion people without any form of ID come from just five countries - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Nigeria. Vyjayanti says getting an ID can really improve someone's life if done right.

DESAI: So whether it's being able to open up a bank account or when you think about governments and the ability for them to really deploy services, making sure that they're the actual recipients of, let's say, cash subsidies. You know, opening up a bank account in and of itself is one thing, but it's also a gateway for a number of things, like savings and greater empowerment.

GARCIA: And other things, too, not just banking. There's also voting, health care, government handouts, even getting a phone connection. All these things are really hard to do if you don't have an ID. Now, there's a few reasons why people tend not to have an ID. First, there's the cost. Creating and maintaining a national identity database is a really expensive business. India, for example, has been rolling out a huge ID program since 2009. It's called Aadhaar. It's a 12-digit number tied to your fingerprint or to your iris scan - kind of like a Social Security number that recognizes your body or your iris.

WOODS: Yeah. It's a little creepy.

GARCIA: Over 1.2 billion people in India have an Aadhaar number. They use it for food subsidies, for voting, basically for participating in Indian society. And to run this program, it has cost the Indian government the equivalent of more than $1 1/2 billion U.S.

WOODS: And there's a couple of other reasons why so many people don't have ID - for example, women barred from applying for ID's themselves in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Benin. And then there's trust. Some people don't want the government tracking them and often for good reason.

GARCIA: Yeah. Identification is a really controversial area, in part because it gives governments so much control over what they know about their citizens.

DESAI: We need to build trust in the system. We don't want forms of ID that can be harmful.

WOODS: It's not as simple as just giving everyone a digital ID. Vyjayanti had a deeper problem.

DESAI: How do you really leverage technology to solve some of the - these great problems like lack of identification but while also mitigating against some of the potential risks like on privacy and data protection?

GARCIA: So to get the best ideas to support countries in building their identification systems, Vyjayanti set up this Silicon Valley-like pitch contest and called it Mission Billion. Contestants from all over the globe came to World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., in mid-April to pitch their ideas.

WOODS: In a packed room - over 100 people. Some wear headsets to listen in different languages.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The momentum around this issue - digital ID is an issue that has arrived.

WOODS: Among the entries - there was a way of securely sharing your address online.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The No. 1 question - what is an address?

WOODS: There was a web-based platform that lets you take control over how your data is used.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The data that goes in your pod is yours forever.

WOODS: And there was even a game called ID Land. One of the finalists, Toby Norman, sat off to the side. He was getting ready to pitch his idea to solve the trust problem.

Do you have a pre-pitch ritual?

TOBY NORMAN: (Laughter) I usually try and take four really, really deep breaths - big as I can go.

GARCIA: Norman runs a nonprofit called Simprints. Simprints makes fingerprint scanners to register people, like, for health services. And when he was trying to roll out this system, Simprints, in Bangladesh, he hit a snag.

NORMAN: How do you actually get genuinely informed consent from someone who's had maybe three to five years of education in their entire lives?

GARCIA: And Toby made it into the final six for this World Bank contest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So next up, we're going to have Toby Norman as our second finalist pitching today. Welcome, Toby.


GARCIA: On the stage, Toby explained how he and his team came up with a tool to use audio recordings of trusted local leaders to ask for consent.

NORMAN: We've worked with human rights lawyers from the University of Oxford to design a layered consent approach. We propose embedding layered...

WOODS: And after all six pitches...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The winner is Simprints.


WOODS: Norman and his team won. A panel of expert judges considered his audio recordings for consent to best fulfill their mission, which was giving people more control and privacy over their data. Plus, his delivery was confident.

Did you do the four deep breaths before you got on stage?

NORMAN: I absolutely did do the four deep breaths before I got on stage.

GARCIA: The prize for Toby's team was $50,000, but more importantly, it means that Toby's idea will get a lot more attention. And in fact, the governments of Uganda and Rwanda have already reached out to Toby. And here we have to acknowledge something that Toby himself does acknowledge. See, this whole event was a lot of fun and, yes, it gathered a lot of clever ideas from all over the world, but there is a dark side to consider here, too, a dark side to identification systems that must be scrutinized. And Toby makes a good point, especially as it relates to Rwanda.

NORMAN: If you look at the Rwandan genocide, one of the key tools that actually helped people identify who was Hutu and who was Tutsi was the national ID system - right? - where people had national identity cards where their tribal ethnicity was the second thing written on that card. And you hear stories from genocide survivors who - when the paramilitary were setting up checkpoints, they would take people's cards. And if they were a Tutsi, they would kill them.

WOODS: Genocide is the most extreme example of when ID's go wrong. But problems can also show up in more pedestrian settings, like in the doctor's office.

NORMAN: What happens in a highly stigmatized condition like HIV if community members or village members find out your HIV status? You think about things like sexuality. There's a whole number of places where knowing what information you're going to share and giving genuinely informed consent to sharing it is really important. The consequences of getting this stuff wrong can be very serious.

GARCIA: Which is why so many people like Toby and Vyjayanti are trying to get identification systems right.


GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan. Paddy Hirsch is our editor. Willa Rubin is our intern and fact-checker. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.