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Cash at Your Fingertips: Biometric Technology for Transfers in Developing Countries



In recent years, interest has soared in the development potential of well-designed cash transfer programs. One particular application is the use of transfers by resource-rich countries (as recently initiated by Iran) to distribute rents across their populations. An emerging body of research suggests that the development impact of such programs tends to be positive and that, especially when received by poor individuals or households, they can unlock constraints on economic activities, allowing a further increase in income. This paper considers the use of biometric technology to underpin transfer programs and how new technology is opening up possibilities for effective transfer programs that, up to now, have only been a theoretical option in the institutional conditions that prevail in many developing countries. Once implemented, biometric identification systems can be used to support a wide range of other development initiatives including banking, voting, health care, and general identification systems. The paper reviews some of the programs using these technologies and how it is enabling poor countries to leapfrog rich ones in the area of identity, much as the cellphone revolution did in the area of communications.