Photograph — Nouberoakland

According to the World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) database, more than 40 percent of people lacking IDs in the world live in Africa. This is partly a consequence of low birth registration.

As at last year, birth registration in sub-Saharan Africa stood at 45 percent, compared to 98 percent in Central and Eastern Europe, 92 percent in Latin America, and over 75 percent in East Asia. And while efforts have been made by nearly all 54-member nations of the ECA to develop a single national ID system, many countries have either been lethargic in execution or simply given up, overwhelmed by the task.

With about 500 million Africans reportedly lacking official IDs, there’s a huge lacuna in the revenue system of governments. The report estimates that if tax assessments and administration are improved, with the consequent enhancement of the government’s capacity to mobilize revenue, taxpayers and governments could save up to $50 billion annually by 2020.

Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, Vera Songwe said, “Without IDs, people can’t participate in financial activities provided by banks. With digitalization, they can receive a digital identity for use in their banking – all they have to do is own a smartphone, while biometrics will do the rest.”

Using examples of East African countries who are growing at twice the pace of the rest of Africa, Songwe noted that their excellence is connected to careful investments in technology, infrastructure and fiscal policies designed to support startups.

“Despite the fact that the continent as a whole is only growing at 3.2 per cent, the East African horn is growing at 6.2 per cent. They are one of the highest competitors of information technology that we can see. They are investing in fiscal policies, and they are collecting revenues better.”

Conflict is one of the recurring challenges that prevent a simple national identity database. Wanja Munaita, an assistant protection officer for stateless people at United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Nairobi, said “When people flee, they leave their belongings behind and that includes identification documents. In their country of asylum, the displaced arrive confused, hungry, sick and frightened. It is a matter of survival for many and so documentation is not the first thing on their minds.”

Another challenge to achieving a unified database, according to Professor Bennu Ndulu, Tanzania’s former Central Bank Governor and member of the ID4D High-Level Advisory Council, is the high cost and duplicated forms of ID. Nigeria, for instance, had at one point, as many as twelve different ID schemes ongoing at the same time, costing the government a reported $2 billion over ten years.

Noting that ID issued once to serve multiple purposes will “keep costs down,” Professor Ndulu suggested that governments should deploy “new digital technology to make registration systems more sustainable.”

Third, there’s the politicization of identity papers. In Algeria, Mauritius, and Benin for instance, married women need to produce their marriage certificates when applying for national identity cards.

There’s also the fact that ethnic groups can be cheated out of political participation, quality education, employment or healthcare by identification paper policies, which change from regime to regime, making it impossible to achieve a coherent, effective system.

Finally, there’s the historic reluctance of government administrators to change from manual, paper-based civil registration processes to digital, a problem that is one half of the other one: the lack of sufficient physical offices for conducting national registration.

To make Ms Songwe’s vision a reality, more African governments would need to first embrace, in all its decisive fullness, the wisdom of new technology. To go with that, there’s an urgent need to pass responsible and adequate personal data protection legislation, to increase peoples’ trust in the registering agencies.

Furthermore, there’s a need to aggregate agencies of registration, so that from birth citizens can have unique, unforgeable, lifetime IDs that encompass all they’ll ever need identification for. Not only does this make registration easier, but it also reduces the burden on government spending for each exercise if it is only done once in each person’s lifetime.

While underlying issues of poor access to electricity and high costs of internet subscription plague the continent, other African countries will do well to emulate the Rwandan model by working on a phase-to-phase achievement of digitization. A continent with an estimated 2050 population of over 2 billion cannot afford to let that vast market become invisible or stateless because of misidentification.

By Caleb Ajinomoh

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