Putting a Finger[print] on the Problem: What USAID Can Learn From India

Here's a simple lesson the government can learn to improve the transparency and effectiveness surrounding the $45 billion it gives in aid every year

A good student of global health learns cynicism. There are wrong answers when it comes to international aid and charity, and history is full of examples. Fortunately, people and organizations that are willing to apply scrutiny in evaluating these efforts will see that they are not inherently evil or debilitating. As a global health student, I want to see how we can spread good practices so that future American aid is a positive catalyst and never a death sentence for failing states. It starts with realistic evaluations about what’s already in place. Learn more about an organization that exemplifies best practices here, and read my column to find out about specific practices I think we should re-evaluate. - Tom

In 2009, the Indian government appointed software innovator Nandan M. Nilekani to lead a momentous effort into obtaining fingerprint and retinal scans from all of the nation’s 1.2 billion residents. Despite the Big Brother sentiments that this maneuver invokes, it will actually usher a revolutionary upgrade (read: circumvention) of India’s bureaucratic welfare system.

In the sprawling nation, billions of welfare dollars have been wasted in attempts to distribute the ferocious economic growth. One major problem has been connecting actual citizens with the benefits that are earmarked for them. The identification initiative will give many Indians a modern identity for the first time, opening the door for previously unthinkable acts such as opening bank accounts and retrieving welfare from anywhere in the country.

The immediate benefits of such a program may be hard to grasp for Americans because we don’t frequently suffer from a lack of government tracking. However, our international aid programs falter from the same reasons as India’s welfare system and, according to the Census Bureau, we funneled $44 billion through these channels in 2009.

Consider this: In the 1980s and 90s, the Somali government and American news sources reported that there were anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million refugees in Somalia. In reality, there were no more than 400,000. Why does it matter? Those numbers were used to make logistical decisions about food aid and political decisions about deployment of U.S. Marines and Special Forces.

Ignoring some of the other tragedies and missteps of U.S. intervention and Somalia, the preposterously inaccurate tracking of refugees led to a vast excess of food aid being delivered into the country. What local militia didn’t divert from shipyards was allowed to flood the market, crushing any hopes for local distributors and farmers. Inside camps, aid workers lamented about being unable to distinguish between honest refugees and locals who lined up for the free food.

The only hope for improving future relief efforts is acquiring more information: cultural and economic for sure, but let’s add identity to that list. A measured response is impossible without specific information, and the mentality can never be “at least we tried something.” As Ivan Illich once said, “The damage that volunteers to willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they” should have done things differently.

Before I recommend that U.S. aid agencies take cues from India’s identification project, I must acknowledge some of the original project’s shortcomings. The program has come under attack for its ambiguous policies with regards to control of the biometric data. After all, there is an undeniable ethical implication to massive collection of personal data, but those problems can be easily addressed with proactive policies. I would designate a certain percentage of the technology budget to ethics commitments as was done in the Human Genome Project. With that in place, there’s no excuse to not pursue the metrics necessary to make positive impacts. Anyone who shuns the collection of basic data like fingerprints is both exaggerating the threats posed by such a collection and underestimating the threat of poorly administered aid.

The United States should implement identification techniques with basic biometric data wherever it distributes international aid.


As part of , he has a fundraising quota. Boyle has a webpage on their master site with a brief message and a way that readers can donate electronically. The donations are not paying for Boyle’s trip or fellowship. Donations are going to the clinics that Unite for Sight partners with to sponsor surgeries. The link to Boyle’s page is https://maestropay.com/uniteforsight/volunteers/ref/tomboylehonduras

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