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7 National Digital Identity Recommendations for 10 African Countries

By Guest Writer on March 10, 2022

digital identity data

Efforts to establish or improve national identification systems in Africa have coincided with the increasing deployment of mobile technology. This has led to the prioritisation of digital “solutions” for facilitating forms of identification and registration – often via biometric attributes.

With an estimated 500 million people in Africa living without any form of legal identification (birth certificate or national ID), digital identities have become increasingly popular because of their relative ease, low cost, and convenience compared to more analogue systems.

These implications are, if anything, underlined by COVID-19 and the ways in which the devastating pandemic has tended to increase the utility of information and communication technologies on the continent and beyond. Just like a pandemic can offer potentially compelling insights into socio-digital inequality, the state, and citizenship in Africa, digital identity ecosystems also proffer an interesting case study of development practices.

Digital Identity in 10 African Countries

With this background in mind, Research ICT Africa and the Centre for Internet and Society partnered in 2020 and 2021 to investigate, map, and report on the state of digital identity ecosystems in 10 African countries.

Towards the Evaluation of Socio-Digital ID Ecosystems in Africa looked at local, digitised (in full or partially) foundational ID systems in Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The project set out to contribute to the broader question of whether digital identity ecosystems increase choices and opportunities for Africans, or whether they exacerbate the multidimensional aspects of digital inequality on the continent.  The 10 African countries evaluated as a part of this project have vastly different contextual realities and these uniquely shape the practices and outcomes of digital identity in each.

All of these African countries, however, contend with colonial histories that in different ways left legacies of identification governance. These histories not only leave traces in contemporary approaches to (digital) identity management (and legacy legislation), but also influence citizens’ desire for or reticence to being to be counted and recognised.

These similarities also mean that countries could start by learning from the experiences of other African countries to address some of the challenges that impact the digital identity experience. At a time when quite a few of the countries examined have policy windows – i.e., where governments are working on developing legislation of direct or indirect relevance to digital identity – learning from each other (and not only from the foreign country examples often lauded by certain aid “partners”) is especially important.

7 Digital ID Recommendations for 10 African Countries

Due to the multitude of stakeholders involved in implementing digital identity approaches, an overarching recommendation is to adopt multistakeholder, collaborative approaches in the development of digital and biometric systems to learn and benefit from the respective strengths that different stakeholders can contribute.

Such participatory approaches are also important in ensuring that everyone involved in the conceptualisation, funding or financing, design, implementation, and governance of digital identity has a more holistic understanding of both the risks and the benefits of these interventions, as well as the need to prepare for them at all levels, from conceptualisation to governance.

Digital ID is a complex issue that requires wide consultation and learning. Policymakers should not rush digital transformation. They instead should publish their digital ID plans and consider all input from other stakeholders, particularly those most likely to be affected by digital ID.

Core Stakeholders

Arguably the most important stakeholder category to be consulted in digital identity programmes is the so-called “beneficiaries” of these systems, including those who tend to be excluded. They are typically the people and communities that tend to be marginalised in socio-digital environments, for example:

  • women, children, elderly people,
  • refugees, stateless people,
  • people living with disabilities,
  • people in rural areas,
  • the poor, and less literate people.

With vastly different connectivity rates across the continent, coupled with different levels of “digital transformation” (and other inequalities), all of the surveyed countries have to consider analogue or less “digital” alternatives for identity management to avoid exacerbating socio-technical inequalities.

In other words: digital approaches to identity must be accompanied by analogue options. This includes phasing in the introduction of such approaches and ensuring that there are always alternatives in the instances where digital approaches cannot work (e.g., due to a lack of electricity or Internet connectivity).

A number of the country partners also emphasised the importance of avoiding mandatory uses of national (digital) identity to mitigate the risk of exclusion (which affect marginalised communities most often). Many of our country partners made specific and useful recommendations for serving the communities that are commonly excluded in their unique contexts.

In the Zimbabwean country case, Ngwenya made specific and useful recommendations to support women in the country, but many of these are more broadly applicable.

Specific Recommendations

They include the need for:

  1. Formulating gender-sensitive policies which take into consideration the gender dimensions of access to documentation, to address gender disparities in registration, as women often bear the responsibility of registering children;
  2. Prohibiting the withholding of birth confirmation records by health institutions and personnel for non-payment of hospital fees resulting in failure to register births essential for obtaining national IDs;
  3. Using alternative supporting documents, such as health cards and affidavits, to address difficulties faced by women who give birth in areas where birth confirmation records might not be readily available;
  4. Ensuring that birth registration laws encapsulate more contemporary trends in family structures to facilitate and enable registration by “non- traditional” parents;
  5. Reviewing and developing application procedures and forms that take into account evolved family structures to allow family members to facilitate acquisition of national documents on behalf of children;
  6. Conducting awareness campaigns to address cultural impediments which hamper access to documentation, such as the difficulties experienced by women who want to register children in their maiden names due to cultural beliefs that children must carry their father’s surnames; and
  7. Educating staff on the intricacies of the local communities they are operating in, to effectively provide the requisite services.

A lightly edited synopsis of Towards the Evaluation of Socio-Digital ID Ecosystems in Africa by Anri van der Spuy, Vrinda Bhandari, Shruti Trikanad & Yesha Tshering Paul

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