East African countries need to embrace biometrics in anti-poverty schemes

Wednesday December 06 2017

Elderly citizens at the launch of Inua Jamii cash transfer programme targeting those aged 70 and above. Kenya has introduced biometric smart cards to distribute monthly state stipends under the programme. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION


East African countries need biometrics and better record-keeping for any meaningful gains from anti-poverty schemes.

According to the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a think-tank in Washington, the absence of proper identification tools inhibits citizens’ access to basic rights and services.

“Under-documentation is pervasive in the developing world, and the identity gap is increasingly recognised as not only a symptom of underdevelopment but as a factor that makes development more difficult and less inclusive,” says a study by CGD.

According to the think tank, civil registration systems are often absent or cover only a fraction of the population in developing countries.

“Biometric technology can help ensure that cash payments reach those who need them most, even in the difficult conditions of places,” reads the study titled “Leapfrogging technology: The case for biometrics.”



At the beginning of the year, Kenya introduced biometric smart cards to distribute monthly state stipends to the elderly, orphans and the disabled.

The cards capture fingerprints of the beneficiaries or their caregivers, replacing a system where beneficiaries had been receiving cash from state-owned Postbank and local chiefs using their national identity cards, a model that was prone to fraud.

According to the government, the three cash transfer programmes have been successful in terms of improved household food security, retention of children in schools, access to basic health care, formation of social support networks, and increased self-esteem and dignity among beneficiaries.

The Centre for Global Development says countries can verify identities with biometric information, including voter registries and health records, as well as keep track of the recipients of social spending.

Databases that store fingerprints exclude ghost or dead recipients, and checking such data at disbursement means the right person is paid.

The databases also help cut administrative costs and make it less likely that the same person benefits from overlapping schemes. They reduce irregularities such as enrolment of ineligible populations into the programme.


In Uganda, the government transfers money for the social protection programme through mobile money accounts via MTN Mobile Money, an electronic money transfer service.

This system has been lauded for being fraud-resistant. It records what has been paid, makes it easier to reach remote areas and can incorporate security checks and reduce the need to transport and store cash.


In Tanzania, government cash transfers are paid through bank accounts or mobile money. Poor families enrolled received Tsh29,000 ($13) each month as an incentive to increase household consumption of food and education services.

To reach a wider population, Kenya has increased the age limit of the people eligible for the state fund to 70 years up from 65 years.

Social welfare programmes across the region have been bedeviled by uncertainties like how to identify the really poor and vulnerable in society.

People scraping a living as street vendors, subsistence farmers, and casual labourers are unlikely to feature in the social welfare programme, so the decisions about who should receive benefits often rely on observable features for poverty, such as whether someone is old or orphaned or lives in poor-quality housing.

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