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.