Savita Bailur and Hélène Smertnik: Researching Women and Identification in a Digital Age

What do you do in the industry? What does caribou digital do? 

Savita: I’ve worked with Caribou Digital for 4 years now. As part of the research team, I lead research projects of experiences of digital life - we’ve worked on overall online use by lower income demographics in emerging economies (what we used to call “ICT4D”!), digital financial services but also increasingly “identification in a digital age” - this might be a good time to say we prefer to use the phrase “identification in a digital age” rather than “digital identity” - see our colleague Jonathan’s great piece on the terminology and why).

Hélène in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya

Hélène in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya

 Just the other day, we realised we’ve now conducted fieldwork in over ten countries on “ID” (to use the shorthand): a few of those are Kenya, Uganda, Bangladesh, Côte d'Ivoire, India, Lebanon and Thailand, working with clients such as Omidyar, Aus Aid, World Bank, UNICEF and the Gates Foundation. In addition to conducting the research, we share our findings and advise on relevant strategy and policy both in the public and private sector. Caribou Digital has a much wider scope of work (all around supporting ethical digital economies in emerging markets), which you can see on but that’s just us on the research side!

Hélène: I’ve been working with Caribou Digital for 2 years, conducting research and leading ground work, mainly on identification questions in countries across Africa and Asia. I don't really have a typical week, but a cycle of work through projects. It starts with from pre-field research - working with Savita on the framing of the research and setting everything up for ground work including finding local partners to the fieldwork itself and then post-field wrap up. 


How do you determine where you run the research?

S: We start at a high level determining the intent and scope first for clients (what is it we are trying to find out?), and after we work on the details collaboratively. We think about the demographics to work with - we know qualitative research (which Helene and I largely do) is not meant to be representative, but we do need to think about who we talk to - a typical cross-section may be “expert” interviewees, middlemen/women who are intermediaries (e.g. mobile money agents) and the “end users” either in focus groups or more in-depth interviews. We don’t really like the term end users (we are just humans!) but I guess that’s the shorthand. Then Helen mobilises the teams. She’s fantastic at finding the people on the ground and building up trusting relationships with people. We always try to do a pilot study so we can test and refine questions and demographics. Ethics are paramount to us so we make sure we go through a code of conduct with partners, and consent with respondents.

H: Savita has such a wealth of experience in the topic. She knows what the important issues are which haven't been thoroughly researched yet and sees where processes are inefficient.


What do companies look for when they come to you?

H: They are not always companies - they can also be foundations, governments, NGOs etc. Often they come from a perspective of wanting to know more about end users’ experiences, as often they haven't been looking at the issues at stake at the same granular level that we get with our qualitative research. With Unicef it's been a unique piece of work looking at youth and adolescence and the overlap between identification and identity. I was interviewing a child who was 10 years old in a refugee camp in Lebanon, who was acutely aware of what ID is and the need for documents. I've found the more privileged the child the less aware they are of identification documents and their use. This child told me: 'it's the document that my dad takes to work with him every day', as this is a key enabler of their rights to move around in the country. That's generally not an issue for children in more privileged communities.

S: It's certainly a challenging and delicate subject to address when doing field research. To find out how access to identification affects people on the ground requires good rapport and a large dose of empathy, which Helene is brilliant at. They key is asking questions without being intrusive - imagine if some random person came and started asking you questions on your identification documents - how would you feel?


What areas are you working on next then?

S:  Well, we’re just wrapping up our in-depth ID research in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on women, work and ID, funded by Aus Aid. It was part of the Commonwealth Identity Initiative with GSMA and the World Bank. Next we’re starting research with Gates on how digital financial service principles they established (Level One) may have a different impact on women, including interoperability in mobile money - I do think this will also bring up gender and ID issues, like around KYC (whose ID is used to register a SIM?). We’ll be working in Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire.


From your research you’ve identified 5 fundamental barriers of access for women. You must see great variation in use of identification between countries depending on the availability information, access, ownership, societal expectations and intersectionality?


Savita in Abengourou, rural Côte d'Ivoire

Savita in Abengourou, rural Côte d'Ivoire


S: Yes, these barriers vary between countries, depending on everything from infrastructure to social norms.That’s why we keep saying you can’t just go in and dump a new “digital ID” system - you have to do some user research. For example, we have enough evidence now that people get nervous around biometrics, especially women in some cultures when they are touched - can we address that issue? Or that even if women have their own ID, it may be the men in their families who keep them - how do we address this

H: We saw in Bangladesh that often women didn't have the time to go and access services, as they were looking after their families, or they didn't have the means to travel. Depending on the type of work they’re doing, this may or not be an issue, but it does become a barrier at some points.


What will you be speaking about at ID2020? 

S:  ID2020 reached out to me to do a keynote, which was nice as they come from a more private sector angle (e.g. the alliance includes Accenture, Microsoft, Rockefeller and many others). So it’s a good audience to take our “end user” research to. Our work brings forward end user research and adds the perspective of the human voice. We’re telling the story of Humans of ID, layering it in with the context of increasingly digital societies in emerging markets. It’s a story that all of us can relate to, as identity and identification go back to the beginnings of humanity.


What brought you into this field?

H: I still find it fascinating that we all live and breathe identity all the time. I now notice it everywhere - whether it’s a clothing collection launch on Instagram called ‘ID’ or in films like Capernaum. We all have a unique identity story that defines us and you can see that in culture globally. 

S: All of us who have moved around the world can relate to the identification issue (I was born in India, moved to the UK, now in the USA, and at various points had all that change codified in documents and credentials). 

There are so many stories about identification in the bureaucratic sense and how it crosses over with identity - the film Lion for example, or the Tom Hanks The Terminal,  or the book Educated (Tara Westover) where she grows up in an American family without a birth certificate and is home schooled, so she has no ID at all but how she navigates that. Two powerful pieces of journalism struck me just this year. One was about an Iraqi boy who is reunited with mother after years, thanks to different types of identification. Another was Azeteng’s story of human trafficking through West Africa. When his Guinean friend Sekou is murdered by the human smugglers, Azeteng keeps his ID. The journalist asks him why he keeps Sekou’s ID. He says: “that is someone’s son, someone’s brother, who knows, maybe even someone’s father,” he said. “I asked myself, how will his family know that he is dead? So I am trying my best for the family to be aware.” 

We are becoming such a globalised society and many are stateless for one reason or another - if you're a migrant worker who’s newly arrived in a new city, but don’t have the right ID you can be completely isolated from applying to jobs (look at the IDNYC by the way  - really interesting case). We often take our access to services and help for granted, but the additional challenge is a lot of people don't have the time or ability to sort these issues out for themselves. 


It must be striking seeing how ID isn’t just a means to accessing essential rights, but also impacts on heritage?

S: Absolutely, on Sri Lankan tea estates workers used to be given numbers not names when they were born. Honestly, a lot of the identification issues are legacies of colonialism and the carving up of countries - the complex case of Cote d’Ivoire for example where the Burkinabe communities have settled in Cote d’Ivoire but are not considered Ivorian. Or what is happening in Assam. Or even the appalling Windrush case - we need to face up to the fact that identification is also a question of power with terrible consequences. And we cannot make the same mistakes again and again by classifying people in a particular way.

H: You start to see the impact of these problems through generations, for example where parents are displaced or lose their identification documents. The barriers faced from your own access to ID often then has an impact on your children’s experience. Consistently we see identification is an essential enabler for social and economic inclusion, though sometimes it isn’t thought about as such and taken for granted.


When you present to private sector organisations, what do you find surprises people the most?

A woman registering for a bank account in Assam, India for Caribou Digital’s Identities Research

A woman registering for a bank account in Assam, India for Caribou Digital’s Identities Research

S: Often the private sector have a totally different angle as their primary concern with identification for a single task or service. It’s a one time necessity and it’s not their job to think about the ethical issues that may arise from how people use it.

H: We question the role of the private sector in our research - are they responsible for people’s accessing and using ID? Take the case of Sri Lankan online companies we spoke to - they may facilitate online work, like people creating a webpage or managing social media for a client. We’ve seen that these companies may not check the ID of the individual that signs up to do the task, unless it requires dealing with sensitive information. Is it that company’s job to educate the people who work on the platform about the importance of ID? Similarly, is it the role of factories to make sure that their employees have ID or is it better that they employ them as the employees need the money? Some companies mentioned they would try to create more awareness around financial inclusion - encouraging them to get access to formal bank or mobile money accounts.

S: So we come back to the question, why do we need ID? There are a number of conversations going on about standards and interoperability, but someone pointed out to me the other day that passports are an universal system, but birth certificates are not. You can't check a birth certificate beyond making sure the hospital is real, as really you could create a fake one at home, and then a passport is often built off that. The other issue we saw is with voter ID, which is generally issued when parties are campaigning for an election - so in rural India, a political party may happily make you 18 so you vote for them. There's very little standardisation across the board, particularly concerning initial ID. 

H: We're very conscious in the recommendations that we make to organisations that we think identification enables inclusion and growth, however, once the need for ID becomes mandatory, you may end up excluding people. 

S: Yes, it raises the question, If you've got no ID then what happens? 


You covered that experience in a number of your articles, what did you find?

H: It really varies. In the research we just finished in Sri Lanka, there were a couple of people who didn't have ID. One used their sister’s ID until they could pay for the lawyer to get their ID sorted. The other person was a gentleman who was just getting by with cash and operating off the grid. In Bangladesh there were far more people “off the ID grid” and using other people's ID when they needed to access services.

In Sri Lanka, Gayani (left) holds the old laminated paper ID and Rangala holds a new smart ID

In Sri Lanka, Gayani (left) holds the old laminated paper ID and Rangala holds a new smart ID

S: You see a number of systems and means of access are interdependent.  Cote d'Ivoire went through mandatory mobile SIM registration with a biometric ID (for national security) but it did impact on those who didn’t have a biometric ID. Most importantly, it meant they didn’t have access to mobile money. 

H: Really the government were trying to push people to get the new biometric ID, and using that specific threat of cutting your mobile line is very strong. In our research, we’ve often found that one of the main drivers to getting an ID in the first place was to be able to own a SIM, so you see how strong that threat is. In addition, mobile money is dependent on your SIM so if you don't have access to a phone line then you can't use mobile money services (e.g. you can’t receive or send money, you can’t take small loans or make savings, through the platform).

S: As a result, those who wouldn’t register for a biometric ID, would have to go through someone else to get their money, which becomes really risky. Researching these issues has made me realise that ID is the foundation for everything.


Yes, and you hear of women having problems travelling with children if they haven’t changed their name.

H: There’s a big - not explored enough -  issue with marriage, changing names, movement after marriage wherever you are in the world. In Kenya you choose whether you keep your father’s name or take your husbands, this decision can have significant impact later on. 

S: Coming full circle on the women and ID issue you’re talking to us about - I do wonder if women face ID issues more than men, which is worsened by the lack of clarity on who do you go to for help (what we talk about in our blog). Just my example again, when my husband and I were trying to get married in the UK, as he was not a British national we faced a lot of challenges - we ran around asking so many different organisations, lost time from work, spent money on travel, but we were just ultimately reliant on individuals helping (or not!). Those who do are the true heroes keeping it together. In contrast, women are not supported in other countries always, which is why I keep going on about intermediaries - and that’s where the role of NGOs and females in advisory committees is so essential. There’s still a lot of both research and policy work for us to do when we talk of women and identification in a digital age.


Find them at @SavitaBaliur and @HeleneSmertnik

Read more of their work at 


 October 04, 2019