Good governance is a hot topic in Pakistan these days. Can a fragile state deliver good governance? Ranked eleventh on the Fragile State Index, Pakistan is among the unique club of high alert states which also includes Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. What’s common in all of these countries? Lack of state capacity, trust deficit between citizen and state and extremely poor service delivery — three critical components of good governance are missing in all these states.
History teaches us that even the simplest technological innovations can have the most profound consequences for society. This is particularly true of connective technologies — the likes of railways, the internet or mobile phones — that have massive spillover effects on society. A citizen-centric application based on biometrics carries similar potential in the public policy domain. Biometrics are not just about enrolling the unique identities of citizens and then stacking these in a database. They can be deployed to strengthen three critical ingredients for a minimally effective state: empowerment, service delivery and state capacity. NADRA has registered more than 121 million Pakistanis with 10 fingerprints, digital photographs and a variety of other biometric attributes. This was a massive effort involving 537 offices, 250 mobile registration vans, 60 man pack units, trekkers and mountaineers to register remote communities. The result? Registration of citizens soared to 98 per cent, with a stunning increase of 100 per cent in female registration from 2008 to 2013. Around 30 million women, three million minorities, eunuchs and transgender, special persons and vulnerable communities were registered in the database.
The most important story is how one of the largest biometric databases was deployed to reconnect the state’s relationship with citizens. This matters in a country described as a fragile state where no census has taken place for 17 years. Mapping the unique identities of citizens can be a powerful tool in extending voting rights, providing access to financial services, disbursing cash transfers and combating corruption. The result is a remarkable empowerment of ordinary people. For empowerment, one needs to look no further than the use of biometrics to sanitise voter lists that have long been manipulated by insiders. When NADRA reconciled the manual voters list of 2007 with its multi-biometric citizens’ database, the results were truly astounding. Nearly 37.1 million entries were incorrect; this is a little less than 50 per cent of the entire electoral list. Nine million voters were registered multiple times, and 15 million had no matching identity in NADRA’s database. For the first time, NADRA developed voters lists that carried the photographs of voters to reduce the risk of electoral fraud. With the support of the election commission, a mobile phone service was launched to verify polling information for voters. Nearly 60 million voters checked their vote registration and polling station information on their mobile phones. Post-election complaints of rigging compelled investigating courts to solicit NADRA’s help. The database was used to reconcile counterfoils of ballot papers. In some cases, the evidence of rigging was so glaring that it put many political power brokers to shame. In one constituency, one person voted 310 times from a women-only polling station. The election was recalled.
Let me turn to the second key experiment, this time in improving social service delivery. When the World Bank’s Poverty Scorecard survey was conducted in Pakistan, NADRA digitised it, reconciled it with the biometrics database and facilitated the compilation of the poverty database. This database is being used today to extend financial assistance to over seven million women through the Benazir Income Support Programme. After one-to-one biometric matching of beneficiaries, a direct cash transfer programme through the use of smartcards has reduced fraud and undercut the role of rent-seeking intermediaries.
Perhaps, the most unsung benefit of such biometric applications was the strengthening of state capacity. One area where NADRA informed the public debate through its analytics was the important issue of tax evasion. The biometrics database was used to identify 3.5 million tax evaders who lived in posh localities, made expensive trips overseas and had foreign currency accounts, yet were absent on the national tax database. We also identified nearly 25,000 ghost workers, multiple-dipping pensioners, proxy prisoners and those who stole people’s mandate.
All of this is promising. But technology is, in the end, only a tool. Strong political will is needed to deploy it in the interests of the citizenry. As a repository of private data, biometrics databases need proper legal protection. This is not possible without effective checks and balances on the powerful. NADRA was created with a mere ordinance, but as its chairman, I took it to parliament for proper legislation and proposed punishment for anybody who compromised the privacy of the citizens’ database. By directly connecting with the citizenry, biometric applications can threaten vested interests. As chairman of NADRA, I felt on several occasions that important power brokers were keen to circumscribe its role to a data-gathering organisation. NADRA’s role in identifying electoral fraud was a tipping point that forced political functionaries to assume direct control over the affairs of a semi-independent authority. Few significant citizen-centric applications have been launched during the last two years.
Despite such political difficulties, NADRA has an excellent infrastructure to support the government’s reform efforts. I can tell from personal experience how we managed to capitalise on disasters by converting them into opportunities. The 2010 floods opened such a political space. With many flood-affected people losing their identity cards, we were able to mobilise 250 mobile registration vans — fitted with state-of-the-art biometrics and satellite equipment — and send them to disaster-struck regions for registration. Biometrics were used to verify the identity and proof-of-life of citizens. Resultantly, more than Rs100 billion in aid were distributed among three million disaster-struck families without a penny being wasted and in a speedy manner. Hence, technology remains a good partner of policy reform. Transparency, increasing the state’s capacity and citizen empowerment are some of the digital dividends that can lay the foundations of good governance. Rent-seekers, power brokers, bureaucratic labyrinths, political expediency and vested interests are the road blocks in technology implementation.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 7th, 2016.