Technology in disaster relief and aid

Published: July 15, 2011

The writer is deputy chairman of NADRA

A study of the 2010 flood in Pakistan, juxtaposed with disasters in other parts of the world, makes one realise the nature and magnitude of the calamity and puts in perspective the effort required to resolve it. If one considers the number of those affected, the flood of 2010 was even bigger than the tsunami of December 2004 that struck Indonesia, India and Thailand. Around 2.2 million people were affected by the latter whereas, according to government figures, the flood affected over 20 million people.

Since it possesses a massive multi-biometric citizens’ database (as of now, 85 million ID cards have been issued), it was logical for the government to task the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to come up with a solution for dispensing cash aid to the flood victims.

There were problems with systems implemented after the Haiti earthquake and the tsunami of 2004. To my surprise, NADRA’s effort in using its database for those displaced by the successful military operation in Swat and Malakand was a role model for the world. The authority had distributed Rs10 billion to 400,000 IDPs and this was done using biometric technology. Similarly, another cash assistance programme based on ‘smart card’ technology, which became very popular in World Bank and UN circles, is the one being used for the Benazir Income Support Programme. Each eligible beneficiary is entitled to a chip-based smart card which can be used at partner shops to withdraw cash assistance. Powered by the authority’s database, this system has practically no chance of being abused.

It would have been impossible to roll out smart card solutions en masse had the authority not produced 85 million ID cards. Both these programmes reflect a new trend in the world that one would call ‘data democratisation’. Good governance requires great transparency in public data, public confidence in the integrity of such data and requires that the data be delivered to policymakers in a quick and efficient manner.

The idea was to make the procedure as simple as possible so that aid could be dispensed to those who needed it most. The provincial government determines certain areas as flood-affected and then NADRA extracts a list of the heads of families living there, which are transmitted to a partner bank, which in turn opens a virtual account in the beneficiary’s name. The latter is then issued a Watan card from partner banks after some multi-biometric checks involving verification of finger prints and facial recognition. Some validation checks are also applied on the database to ensure transparency.

The operation started in August 2010 and till the writing of this article a total of 1,686,168 such cards had been distributed. In an increasingly digital global economy, governments need to use biometric technology in tandem with information technology solutions for the management of crises such as floods. It’s time to recognise the fact that democratisation of data in this fashion needs to be given priority because it has the potential to become a strategic asset for the government.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • kashif manzoor
    Jul 16, 2011 - 12:53AM

    It is indeed very commendable work as long as the “strategic” asset does not go in US hands as a regular practice….!!

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Jul 16, 2011 - 1:40AM

    All this sounds wonderful. But the fact still remains that audits when undertaken throw up some rather disturbing financial shotcomings all the way up to cases of outright corruption.

    Of course I accept there is corruption everywhere in the world. The question is one of its magnitude relative to the size of the economy.

    The recent TI report for 2011 makes for distressing reading.

    However, I will say tha NADRA has been praised by many for a job well done.

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  • Asma Ali
    Jul 16, 2011 - 4:54PM

    I think the topic was picked up to deflect attention from the less comfortable aspects of NDMA.I know atleast two serving deputy commissioners who recieved Watan Card as a flood victims on their very own names.

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  • Asghar Ramzan
    Jul 16, 2011 - 5:36PM

    Technology ——disaster —relief —–Aid ——that is how NDMA wants us to see it and glorify it. While the Disaster policies had gone under a radical changes in the developing countries (let alone developed ones), we are still stuck up decades old methods and time worn bureaucratic system of technology, relief and Aid to confront with Disasters. Because the NDMA like, its political Masters, thinks that disaster is a “savagery of Nature” “uncontrollable” out there” detached from existing social pattern and regard it its duty to relieve the suffering of stricken population through “C 130” and “Cargo and cash from donors”. Then go to the rooftop and beat the drums of its glory of how it successful to distribute cash relief and Aid.
    Disaster is all about power, social choices, and vulnerabilities which have unfortunately failed to enter in the lexicon of NDMA ,secondly all school of thoughts in the Disaster management are unanimous that Aid and relief work only for bureaucratic and political purpose, while throw victims in the deeper quagmire of helplessness by creating dependency syndrome and killing their resilience in the long run. But why NDMA perform better when everything else where is falling apart in the land of pure?

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  • optimist
    Jul 18, 2011 - 1:11AM

    @ Meekal Ahmed

    Every one of your comment is negative. There was no need to be negative in this one. Pakistan is leading the third world when it comes to NADRA.

    Why we expect the world to look at the ‘true face’ of Islam and Pakistan when we are not willing to anything good about ourselves!

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  • shahid
    Jul 20, 2011 - 4:46PM

    It is definitely a great task done successfully by NADRA. Let us hope we get no more of such disasters and can focus on continous improvement and hence further development. We should be able to to enhance and capitalize our assets and reap benefits at functional levels in other organizations as well as at national level based on expertise develop by NADRA.

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