Digital identity opportunity in mobile-enabled social benefits programmes

UNICEF’s Social Cash Transfers and Children’s Outcomes report, defines Social Cash Transfers (SCTs) as ‘non-contributory, predictable transfers of cash or goods and services in kind, delivered to individuals or households in order to protect them from the impact of shocks, as well as to support the accumulation of human, productive and financial assets.’ In recent years, SCT’s have become widely-accepted for humanitarian assistance as well as in supporting the most vulnerable populations in many countries, with development organisations and donors coming together in groups such as the Cash Working Groups under the Cash Learning Partnership, among other initiatives.

As these programmes grow and reach scale, they face cash handling challenges such as accounting for cash in real time, accurately assessing the logistical requirements of acquiring, securing, transporting and distributing funds (often in cash form), and more importantly, verifying that these funds have reached their intended beneficiary. Manual verification processes significantly increase the overheads of any programme, as field staff have to make additional visits just to verify who received the cash. In some cases, these overheads account for 34 per cent of operational costs.

Mobile-enabled last mile solutions

Mobile technologies offer SCT and similar social benefits programmes a way to greatly reduce operational costs, so that donor funds can more effectively reach a larger number of beneficiaries. Below are two areas where adoption of mobile technology in social programmes can be beneficial.

  1. Digital data collection: Digitising data collection using mobile devices can enable programmes to quickly enumerate, budget and plan for dissemination of benefits. This has been clearly demonstrated in Zambia, where the SCT program has scaled from 17,700 registered households in 2014, to over 500,000 registered households in 2018, powered by mobile technology, and with data being available to decision makers in real-time.
  2. Transfer: As beneficiary numbers grow, disseminating and accounting for benefits becomes immensely complex, however, mobile money wallets can simplify this process. Bulk transfers through mobile money platforms can happen remotely, instantaneously, and effortlessly, and be significantly more transparent and accountable since they are digital from end-to-end. With mobile money platforms capable of performing high volume/low value transactions, large populations of beneficiaries can receive their benefits in near real time.

Digital identity opportunity

With the increased ubiquity of mobile technology, a mobile number that has gone through a robust SIM registration and KYC process can provide a unique and reliable way to identify individuals in the digital space. This is especially important as social programmes adopt digital disbursement methods such as vouchers or mobile money transfers that are sent directly to beneficiaries. However, the reduced physical interaction with the beneficiaries during such processes requires that a mobile number is a trusted form of digital identity. This is possible through:

  • SIM verification: Social benefits programmes can work with mobile operators to confirm that the beneficiary ID and mobile number provided during registration, match the mobile operator’s existing KYC data for that mobile number, especially in countries where SIM registration is mandatory. Verification As A Service (VAAS) provides the first layer of verification where programmes are certain that the intended beneficiary is indeed the owner of the mobile line they are registered to receive benefits on. This is crucial to the transition for cash to digital payments.
  • Location verification: With the required authorisations in place, it is technically possible for mobile operator platforms to match the location of the beneficiary’s mobile handset during the benefit transfer, against the location of the expected location of the beneficiary, and enable social programmes to verify that the beneficiary is in the expected location when receiving the benefit transfer. This has the potential to reduce fraud and leakage and again, ensure that benefits are being transferred to the appropriate and intended recipient.
  • Voice verification: While not yet widely adopted (compared to other biometric verification methods such as fingerprints and iris scanning), voice verification is potentially a more cost-effective beneficiary verification option to deploy at scale, as it would not require rolling out biometric devices across an MNOs network – it would simply use the mobile phone’s microphone to capture a beneficiary’s voice. Voice verification at the point of benefit transfer potentially offers a higher level of certainty that the social benefits payments have been sent to the intended beneficiary, and enables accurate reporting on disbursements. This would potentially eliminate the need for SCT programme staff to travel to remote areas of the country to physically verify receipt of the funds by beneficiaries, thus saving significant programme resources. An example of mobile-based voice verification is Safaricom’s ‘Jitambulishe’ (identify yourself) service, which enables subscribers to authenticate their identities via voice. Leveraging voice verification for social benefits would require partnerships with mobile operators and investment in voice technologies, but holds many exciting possibilities both from an efficiencies standpoint and also in terms of giving beneficiaries to authenticate their own identities and access social benefits services.

The GSMA’s Digital Identity Programme is currently working together with Zambian mobile network operators and stakeholders in the country’s social benefits and payments space to develop, test and implement viable technical solutions to challenges that Zambia has faced regarding the verification of beneficiaries who are enrolled in such social benefit programmes. After hosting a workshop in June 2019 on ‘Enhancing Mobile Phone Authentication and Identification of Beneficiaries in Social Programmes’, the programme is working with MNOs to explore the real-time verification of eligible beneficiaries via mobile-enabled platforms that rely on robust KYC processes and provides a unique identifier of that beneficiary. These platforms will also test how social payments may be disbursed in a digital format that utilises this secure and efficient method of beneficiary identification.

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