Identity in Africa – an existential right for every citizen

Last updated: 20 September 2021

For many governments across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the immense value that a digital identity system can have. With many citizens being stuck in their homes during the past 18 months, the need for digital identity verification to access essential services has skyrocketed.

But in the case of many African states, the pandemic has only compounded existing identity issues. The result? Access to essential services, such as healthcare and government aid has become more complicated for hundreds-of-thousands of citizen.

In light of yesterday’s International Identity Day, we’re here to discuss what effect the pandemic has had on African national identity systems, and look at what tools are available for governments.

Where do African states stand now with identity?

Sadly, lacking a basic form of identity is a problem that is felt by many citizens across the continent. As many as half a billion African citizens do not have a foundational form of identity, which can lead to them being excluded from key services.

The root of this issue for many citizens stems from the moment they are born. As in many countries, birth certificates are foundational forms of identity. However, only 30% of African citizens are registered with birth certificates when they are born, meaning they have no foundational form of identity. This makes the process of procuring other IDs becomes much more difficult.

The impact of COVID-19

These problems have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. With limitations placed on movement and closure of government enrolment centres, citizens have found it difficult to be included in national identity systems. What’s more, COVID-19 has further worsened the already low number of birth certificate registrations, as citizens are unable to bring their newly born children to registration bureaus.

Deeper than this, the pandemic has exposed a disturbing reality – the gap between those with and without access to digital identities. For the former, life could continue from the safety of their home, seamlessly authenticating themselves online where needed. On the other hand, those without access to digital IDs have suffered as they haven’t been able to access essential services like financing & government aid, with this likely to continue if change is not made.

Tools for building resilience

It’s clear that the pandemic has laid down a sizable challenge on top of existing issues to African governments. But, there are a number of methods at their disposal to strengthen their identity schemes and weather unexpected shocks. Here are a few tools that governments can use:

  • Global initiatives promoting civilian identity – initiatives such as the Identification for Development (ID4D), launched by the World Bank, are looking to provide all civilians around the world with fundamental forms of ID. In the case of ID4D, the Work Bank is looking to provide legal identity for all, notably birth registrations, by 2030. In particular, the World Bank has placed an emphasis on assisting citizens in sub-Saharan Africa, where it has identified the largest ID coverage gaps. By getting involved, African states can better position themselves to provide their citizens with identity documents.
  • Self-enrolment systems – With many countries closing registration bureaus because of the pandemic, self-enrolment services have risen in demand. Building the infrastructure for a self-enrolment system removes the need to travel and allows greater flexibility in how citizens enrol into national identity schemes. Self-enrolment services could take the form of users capturing their biometric data and photo via a secure mobile app, which then securely shares the identity data with a governmental agency using encryption.
  • From national ID system to mobile identity for digital ID-based services – Just as financial services like M-Pesa has given unbanked Africans the ability to pay digitally with their mobile phone, a proper national digital identity scheme – including mobile identity – can be a game changer. Once a national identity registry is put in place to enrol African citizens, it can provide them with an official, trusted identity. This system can then be the foundation for additional identity means such as identity cards, mobile ID and digital health passes. Through investment aimed at providing poorer civilians with mobile devices, the role of mobile in identity development could expand exponentially.

The identity challenge standing in the way of many African nations cannot be understated. The unique problems of the pandemic have only made this challenge all the more complex. However, the path to widespread identity exists. By tapping into different technologies, such as self-enrolment tech and mobile IDs, the power to provide citizens with foundational identity documents lies in the hands of governments.

Interested and want to learn more? Leave a question below and we’ll be sure to get back to you. Make sure to also follow us on Twitter at @ThalesDigiSec!

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