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Modern technology helped the government of India revamp a program that subsidizes cooking gas. (Gates Archive/Prashant Panjiar Photo)

Bank accounts, cell phones and biometric identification could help spread resources more efficiently and equitably in developing nations, according to a new report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Those technologies helped the Indian government improve an initiative to distribute cooking gas in the country after legacy programs resulted in widespread waste, fraud and abuse.

The Gates Foundation’s annual Goalkeepers Data Report takes stock of progress toward the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, a set of objectives to curb poverty, climate change, inequality and injustice by 2030. The latest report, just released, calls for renewed efforts related to primary health care, digital inclusion and adaptation to climate change.

Despite advancements in some areas, Bill Gates lamented the “stunning” degree of inequality that still exists in the world — not only among different countries but within individual nations. “We see that where you’re born and what gender you are do have a major effect on this global inequality,” Gates said on a conference call with journalists.

But India’s cooking gas initiative — and the tech it used to achieve success — is among the good-news stories to come out of the report.

People in India had access to cooking gas for decades through a program that was rife with problems: rich people who didn’t need the subsidy still had access to it; subsidized gas made its way onto the black market; and the government paid nearly $10 billion for the subsidy in some years.

Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann at the 2018 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

But that changed thanks to the approach identified in the report.

“Bank accounts, biometrics connected to ID, and mobile phones enabled the government of India to enable 75 million poor, rural women to benefit from subsidized gas stoves,” said Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Gates Foundation, in an interview with GeekWire,

Starting in 2012, the Indian government used this technological “trinity” to confirm the identity of citizens and deposit the subsidy directly into their bank accounts. Since the launch, the government has saved almost $9 billion on the program.

The Gates Foundation wasn’t involved in the program but has followed it closely based on the effectiveness of the approach. Desmond-Hellmann called the fusion of those technologies “a powerful force” that could be applied to other initiatives around the world.

Take mobile phones, which can be used to crowdsource data in real time — from cataloging vaccine coverage to gathering feedback from farmers. “We should be able to have way more visibility, way more measurement, about government services than we’ve ever had before with the pervasiveness of the cell phone,” Gates said.

Bank accounts can likewise have an outsized impact, as they did in India by allowing the government to dole out subsidies directly. “A lot of financial inclusion started with talking about loans. But actually having bank accounts is a very powerful thing,” said Desmond-Hellmann. “It’s really powerful for women to have access to financial services far beyond loans.”

Even with potential privacy concerns, the advantage of biometric identification is that it allows programs to efficiently steer resources toward the right people. While the Gates Foundation actively pushes for increased digital inclusion, especially around access to the financial system, Desmond-Hellmann said that some initiatives are better handled by governments.

“Things like biometric IDs can be controversial, and we think it’s best driven by sovereign nations,” she said. “There’s a very important dialogue, including in India, about the risks and benefits of biometric ID systems.”

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