Faruq works as a caretaker in Dhaka. In his 32 years of life, he never needed an ID card. He had a birth registration certificate which had his name wrong. He never bothered to correct the mistake since he was able to perform all his activities quite comfortably without the need to show any formal identification document ever. However, everything changed after the Covid-19 pandemic. Everybody except him at his place of work got vaccinated. He even tried to get the vaccine during the mass vaccination campaign on the day of honourable prime minister Sheikh Hasina's birthday. He waited for 3 hours only to be told that his birth registration certificate was no good for getting the vaccine. He was told he must have a 'smart card' and then only he could get the vaccine. He got very disappointed as he knew the Covid-19 virus was not going to care about his smart card.
Digital identity schemes provide a way to prove identity by incorporating demographic and biometric information. In most of the developing and least developed countries, digital identity platforms have been linked to the social protection schemes. The idea is that this linkage can mitigate the two main errors that may occur in case of targeted social protection schemes - first, the error of excluding deserving candidates and second, the error of including undeserving candidates. However, new research studies on digital identity platforms are increasingly pointing out the unintended consequences that can emerge from using digital identity without considering the social contexts of use.
In Bangladesh, the Covid-19 vaccination programme started on January 27, 2021, and the government developed a dedicated website and later an app for the purpose of registration. The system was well designed, but the registration process needed a higher level of understanding regarding how digital tools work. Therefore, citizens without adequate digital knowledge required help either from their family members, friends, employers with digital literacy or healthcare workers to register for the vaccine. However, if someone didn't have a national identity card or smart card, nobody could help them since the vaccination programme was digitally linked with the national identity database. The reason for this linkage is understandable. Since the government has been centrally managing the inoculations, it only makes sense to tie the digital identity with the vaccination status for future use. Data accuracy is critical here as reopening the economy depended on the vaccination programme. However, the question that remains is whether it was necessary to tie the vaccination process only with the national identity scheme knowing that many people in the country still were not part of the scheme. University students were allowed to register later with their birth registration documents. So, why can a person like Faruq who is not educated but is older than most of the university students not get the vaccine with his birth certificate? Have we ended up creating another layer of digital exclusion based on education?
Amartya Sen's seminal work on capabilities can provide a tool for understanding digital exclusion that can emerge as an unintended consequence of using digital tools such as digital identity platforms. Digital platforms are primarily of two types - (i) transaction platforms where value is created for the user by ensuring proper matching between users and providers and by speeding up transactions, and (ii) innovation platforms that allow creation of periphery services by third parties who can utilise the functionalities stemming from the platform core. A digital identity scheme can be perceived as an innovation platform since by providing authentication information it allows users to get access to other products or services. Confirmation of identity can result in access to social protection schemes such as financial transfers and rationed food programmes in many developing and least developed countries. However, the mere implementation of a digital system does not guarantee that the target groups will get the intended benefits. The digital tools must be thought of as socio-technical artefacts that diffuse within the social contexts and reproduce the social structures. Sen's capability approach can be illuminating in examining how a digital system can exacerbate the problem of social exclusion as an unintended consequence. According to Sen, capabilities are abilities to achieve different functioning or realised accomplishments. Capabilities emerge within the context of personal, social, and environmental factors termed together as conversion factors. Sen argues that a person's freedom - comprising well-being freedom and agency freedom - is reflected by the set of capabilities s/he actually possesses. Technology such as digital identity platforms can provide a means for proving one's identity. When mediated through conversion factors, digital identities can offer the freedom to easily achieve the functioning of social protection, since the user can exercise the set of capabilities that arise from the interaction of the digital system and the broader social system. For example, by proving the identity digitally one can get the Covid-19 vaccine, which means, s/he achieves a functioning. However, digital technologies do not always guarantee the inclusion of potential users by amplifying the capabilities. Rather, it can rob the potential capabilities of a person by acting as a gatekeeper and as argued by Sen, can result in social exclusion by capability deprivation.
Linking the Covid-19 vaccination programme only with the digital national identity card has done exactly that in Bangladesh. It has eroded the capabilities by blocking agency freedom and well-being freedom. People like Faruq lost their agency freedom to the digital system since it took away the decision-making freedom about the vaccination. They also lost the well-being freedom since they remain unvaccinated against a deadly virus. Additionally, they lost respect of their peers who all got vaccinated and blamed the unvaccinated people like Faruq for risking their well-being. Therefore, the community of unvaccinated people who could not get the vaccine because they could not prove their identities digitally, lost the freedom of their collective well-being.
Therefore, it is imperative to reimagine the role of technology in society. Technology should be the means to achieve an end, not an end in itself. Technology can never provide a complete solution unless the decision makers acknowledge how social structures, cultures, and community norms get embedded in how people actually experience the technological impact on their lives. There must be an understanding about the unintended consequences such as digital exclusion that can result from capability deprivation such as the case of Covid-19 vaccination programme in Bangladesh. There is no doubt that it is extremely important to maintain data accuracy and target deserving candidates in any type of social protection programme. However, arrangements should be made beforehand to catch those unfortunate citizens who may fall through the cracks because of their lack of digital access.
Dr. Ummaha Hazra is an assistant professor at the Department of Management, School of Business and Economics, North South University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Dr. Asad Karim Khan Priyo is an assistant professor and the chair of the Department of Economics, School of Business and Economics, North South University Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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