Upgrading the Identity Ecosystems in Africa

By Dr. Joseph J. Atick, Executive Chairman, ID4Africa

In developed nations, people routinely assert their identities dozens of times a day. They do it effortlessly through many different means and for many different purposes; they do it so much so, that asserting one’s identity has blended into the fabric of habitual actions that people do in a modern society.

Unfortunately, this is still far from being the case for sub-Saharan Africa with its billion identities, where identification continues to be a real chore and a daily challenge for ordinary people and for the institutions that are supposed to deliver services to them. In many ways, lack of robust identification on the Continent has contributed to marginalization and exclusion; people often opt not to participate in the institutions of their state, because of the effort of proving who they are. This is the nightmare scenario for the development agenda whose fundamental tenants are built on inclusiveness for all, and which looks to spread the fruits of development across all sectors of society.

But how did Africa find itself in this situation where many identification systems lack coverage and are not fit to serve current needs? There are many factors that have contributed to this over time; some are the result of missteps along the path of state building post-independence, some are the direct consequence of the absence of civil registration institutions because they were destroyed during conflicts or because they never existed in a decentralized fashion, and some are due to the geographical challenges that have been exacerbated by artificially drawn colonial borders. A single factor is enough to render efforts to build identification systems a major challenge, let alone so many that have come together into the perfect storm that has prevented the emergence of robust and inclusive identification systems in the continent.

It is interesting to note that Identification has for the most part been tied to citizenship and nationality in Africa, which made these systems political and divisive. There was no view of identity as an enabler of service delivery in the past. So significant investments over the years went into building voter registers which were constructed through ad-hoc campaigns. These systems were not sustainable. After the elections, the registers were neglected for lack of funding or because of post electoral conflict, and they were revisited again at the time of the next elections. Biometrics was introduced and was sold as the panacea for ensuring one vote per one person. But they were often not introduced as part of institutionalized national identity schemes that are permanent, continuous and independent of political control.

Long story short, current African identification systems leave a lot to be desired for, despite national and donor investments that tried to build them over the years. It is safe to say that for the most part out of the billion or so people in sub-Saharan Africa, only one in 5 is in possession of means of identification that is performant and convenient. Among the segments of the population that continue to be disproportionately outside the identity systems are the children, the women, the poor and vulnerable and those living in rural or hard to reach areas.

Time for change

The current situation is unacceptable in our time. We live in an era where the global community now appreciates the important role identity plays in the support of human development. This is the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which explicitly in goal 16.9, call for establishing legal identity for all, including birth registration by 2030. This short sentence was not added to the roster of the SDGs overnight or taken lightly, it was the outcome of years of work on the part of many people passionate about identity that have evangelized the international community, by arguing for the positive effects of identification on development. Luckily, we are also now in the post Aadhaar era, which in India has been shown to change the foundations by which a government can empower its people through digital transformation across all segments of the population. Aadhaar has demonstrated that through judicious identity management, the impact of social protection and economic development could be magnified and made more inclusive.

Accomplishing this objective, is what led to the foundation of ID4Africa as a move^y^rment of advocacy and empowerment, and there are many reasons for optimism and for belief that this time we have the chance, working together and by leveraging some of the pioneering work of some of the African countries that have made strides in building modern identification systems, to finally get it right for all of Africa.

ID4Africa: A tripartite inclusive pan-African movement

ID4Africa, may be a young movement, but it has already founded a community by capturing the minds and hearts of a large group of people passionate about facing the identification challenges to build a more equitable Africa. These are people that believe legal identity for all must be assured within the frameworks of human rights and dignity, as delineated by the various pronunciations of the United Nations, including SDG 16.9.

What is different about this movement is its inclusiveness. In addition to being pan-African, open to all African countries, it recognizes that identification is not the exclusive occupation of a single institution within a country, instead it operates under the principle that identity concerns all and hence it recruits all civil servants that work in any institution that deals with identity and not just those that work for the national identity authorities. The movement is freely open to all of those that can benefit from exchange of knowledge related to identity matters.

In addition, since its inception, ID4Africa recognized that for success two other stakeholders must be integral partners in its mission. The first are the international development agencies—such as the World Bank, The African Development Bank, USAID, The French Development Agency, UNDP, etc. Those have historically been providers of funding and general programmatic assistance. In recent times (over the last five years) the development agencies have been developing their identity practices through initiatives such as ID4D which were founded about the same time as ID4Africa with clear cross-fertilization between both. Teaming with the development agencies is essential to ensure that funding is available to finance projects, but also to build technical capacity and conduct assessment of progress across the continent, using tools and capabilities only available to such agencies. As such we see them as institutions with a very important role to play in the development of the identification ecosystems in Africa. Having them be integral to

the ID4Africa movement as partners (some of whom are even represented on our Board of Advisors and are actively guiding the movement) adds tremendous value and ensures that the efforts are coordinated between the various parties seeking to develop and launch identification systems.

The second additional stakeholder is the private sector or industry, in the form of the technology and solutions providers. These are ultimately the ones that will, through their innovations, implement solutions to overcome the African identification challenges. They must be aware of where the needs are, what the opportunities could be, and they need to add a dimension of realism to expectations of what is possible. They also have the means to support the activities of the movement by sponsoring our annual meetings where the exchange of knowledge takes place. For all these reasons, industry was brought in from day one as an integral partner in the ID4Africa tripartite: Government, Development Agencies and Industry.

Birth of a movement

The movement, launched in 2014, held its inaugural meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in June 2015; the event was a make or break moment for the movement. It was held in the shadow of skepticism about the ability of anyone to unite on a large scale, the African community around a subject as controversial as identity. Nevertheless, over 300 people, including representatives of 27 African nations, attended the kickoff event and made the ongoing need for ID4Africa very clear.

The inaugural meeting was followed by a milestone event in Kigali, Rwanda in 2016 that solidified the status of the movement and established the agenda for the next few years. The Kigali meeting reunited over 600 individuals representing the three main groups of the tripartite. It was remarkable, not just because attendance doubled in the one year since inauguration, but because of the passion and intensity that were palpable throughout the sessions. The strength and sustainability of the movement were clear to anyone that attended that meeting; it was apparent that this was a force to be reckoned with. Kigali pushed away any lingering doubts.

In the aftermath of the Kigali meeting many more African government institutions became active within the movement through the various channels of engagement created for them. For example, they nominated representatives to become ID4Africa Ambassadors; shortly after Kigali, the movement appointed Ambassadors in 21 African countries, representing over 75% of sub-Saharan Africa in population. The Ambassadors, one per country, are civil servants that act as liaisons between ID4Africa and their country’s identity institutions and governments. They ensure that their country’s issues are represented in the movement’s agenda and at the Annual Meeting.

The African institutions and their Ambassadors also participated heavily in shaping the agenda for the 3rd edition of the Annual Meeting, which is taking place April 26-28, 2017 in Windhoek Namibia. They diligently worked to constitute official national delegations to that meeting. As of today, 43 African Nations are sending sizeable delegations, representing the diverse stakeholders in their countries.

Today over 800 participants are registered to the Namibia event, with 350 of them being African government delegates, nominated by their country-double the African government figure for Kigali. They will benefit from a full and groundbreaking three-day program designed to respond to what the 2nd edition identified as priorities. It will be accompanied by one of the largest identity and biometrics expositions in the world where over 90 international leading companies will exhibit and demonstrate their latest capabilities in identity technologies and solutions, all adapted for Africa.

The priorities for dialogue in the 3rd edition include applications of identification systems to reinforce democracy, support healthcare, build inclusive financial platforms and institutions, reinforce Civil registration and e-government initiatives and combat identity fraud and enhance security. In addition, focus, will be on cross border and regional identity, where the World Bank, ECOWAS, African Union Commission, IOM, among others (including leading representatives of the industry), will address the importance of developing identity schemes that interoperate among African nations to facilitate free movement and economic exchange.

The overall objective of the third meeting remains consistent with the tactical objectives of the movement: to help governments and development organizations understand the social and economic impact of identity systems, assess the current state of affairs of the identity ecosystems in Africa, identify opportunities for engagement and collaboration and transfer the experiences of others and build capacity, all while getting exposure to the latest industrial capabilities presented by the world technology and solution leaders.

A movement on the move: looking beyond Namibia

The Namibia event has yet to take place, nevertheless, the ID4Africa secretariat, with approval from the board of advisors, has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with another African nation that has stepped up to the plate to be the host for 2018. This country will be announced during the Namibia meeting in a special session. The secretariat is currently exploring options and examining expressions of interest for the host country for 2019.

From day one, the vision was to keep the Movement on the move from one African country to another, giving access based on merit and commitment, without being influenced by any other factors and without giving privilege to any group or region.

Understanding Africa’s needs: the Annual Surveys

In its attempts to promote the flow of information and to quantify it, ID4Africa has instated the tradition of Annual African Government ID Survey. The surveys give the African Delegates the opportunity to provide input as to their priorities and needs. The results are analyzed and communicated in a special intelligence report to all three stakeholders, but in particular to the industry and the development agencies, with the goal of helping them better understand Africa’s identification needs, so that they can ensure their presentations and their offerings are more pertinent and impactful.

The surveys are also used by ID4Africa to inform the agenda for its next annual meeting in 2018, by trying to create content that is responsive to clear and present African government needs.

The 2017 survey was very revealing. It shows Africa’s priorities are focused on pragmatically putting in place and operationalizing as soon as possible, flexible, robust, high coverage ID systems that can leverage their ID data in support of sectorial identification needs. Throughout, the priorities seem to be driven by national concerns and not by regional or global considerations at this stage of early development.

The survey demonstrates that all three stakeholders in ID4Africa have a lot to do on the road to construct ID systems for Africa.

Our Mission adheres to the Principles of open Knowledge

In order to promote the responsible adoption of digital identity to enhance people’s lives, and empower them to claim and exercise their rights from birth-to-death, we believe we need to promote access to knowledge and information by the identity stakeholders, so that policies and investments about identity systems are informed and based on sound evidence and experience.

Our objective all along has been to democratize information. To make it available to everyone on an equal basis, so that decisions are made using the same data. We continually call upon all governments, development agencies and the industry to adhere to such level of transparency. The responses have been phenomenal. The development agencies have been stepping up their output, with reports and information and technical and economic studies that are all freely available for African consumption. The industry is accepting standardization and benchmarking, and governments are coming forward willing to share their experiences in the form of dos and don’ts for the benefit of others in Africa.

One recent guiding document that we believe will leave a deep mark is the Principles on Identification. These 10 principles, which were developed by a consortium of international identity stakeholders (including ID4Africa) facilitated by the World Bank and the Center For Global Development, can enhance the benefits of identity systems and protect against their risks. ID4Africa officially endorsed these principles and urged all African identity authorities to practice them in their implementations of identity schemes.

This open knowledge ecosystem is constantly being reinforced by a code of ethics that is pertinent and that is natural to embrace.

ID4Africa Code of Ethics

  1. We recognize that all people are born free and equal in dignity.
  2. We respect and recognize the fundamental human rights with which each person is endowed.
  3. We respect and recognize the moral values, religions, customs, traditions and the cultures of the communities we work with, and the religious freedom of all individuals.
  4. We conduct our activities with the highest ethical standards, to ensure integrity, honesty, and moral values in all our dealings.
  5. We recognize that all people are entitled to recognition of their identity through the protection and rule of law and through a reliable, trusted identification system that does not discriminate and that safeguards their liberty and rights, including their privacy and the protection of their personal data.
  6. We are committed to communicating accurate and pertinent information regarding identity systems.
  7. We use merit to select among competing propositions and options related to our events and actions. We will never be a willing partner to corruption, bribery or any other financial improprieties, illegalities or misconduct.
  8. We strive to act always in accordance with the humanitarian principle of Do-No-Harm. Consequently, we do not support any identity system that negatively impacts the well-being of the people we are trying to help.
  9. We strive to ensure that our activities maintain our respect for and avoid a negative impact on the environment.
  10. We are not part of or controlled or influenced by any government or intergovernmental agency nor are we affiliated with any political party (Although we may agree and support policies and legislation in support of the adoption of identity systems.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future

In just under three years, a lot has been accomplished. The ID4Africa family has grown significantly and it is now a voice that helps Africa articulate how it intends to solve its own identification problems. The movement has given access to knowledge and facilitated the exchange, but ultimately it is the African nations that are consuming this knowledge and turning it into actions. It is a movement that is empowering talent on the Continent to do what is required. Africa will get it done, whether it is adopting new technologies, reforming existing laws and institutions, building capacity and expertise, sensitizing the public, and reforming government services to rely on transparent and accountable methods of service delivery, it will be done. ID4Africa will accompany the African nations in this journey for as long as required and for as long as they express the need for this movement and for as long as we together can continue to make a difference in Africa. Join us!

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Categories: Identification

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