Why Digital ID Matters

With the African Union Commission reportedly working towards adopting a new policy framework for digital ID this year, examining how digital IDs are currently deployed and used on the continent, and with what consequences, is crucial. To provide a better understanding of the state of digital ID on the continent, Research ICT Africa and the Centre for Internet and Society partnered in 2021 to investigate the nature, development and potential impacts of digital ID processes in ten African countries. With support from the Omidyar Network, RIA and CIS worked closely with local partners to offer a snapshot of the state of digital identity in the countries selected, using a comprehensive evaluation framework specifically designed for assessing digital ID. 

In this thematic series, Africa’s Digital ID Dispatches, the research is summarised through guest contributions from country partners. In the first installation in this series, RIA’s doctoral fellow, Anri van der Spuy, looks at why digital IDs matter in Africa, and why we need to continue examining them and their impacts on our increasingly datafied societies. 

Why digital ID?

Legal identification has become crucial for social protection, financial inclusion, migration, and even for coping with crises like the Covid-19 pandemic. This is why an important goal in the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015) is the provision of legal identity for all by 2030. Many have argued that work towards this goal must start in Africa, where more than 40% of those lacking IDs in the world reportedly reside.  

Efforts to improve national identification systems have coincided with the increasing deployment of mobile technology, meaning that global identification processes are evolving quickly. The growing availability of mobiles have led to some actors promoting digital interventions for facilitating forms of identification – often via biometric attributes. Digital IDs, for example, have become increasingly popular since the 2015 Agenda because of their relative ease, low cost, and convenience compared to more analogue systems. (For a basic understanding of the difference between digital ID, identification processes, and more, see the second installation of this series.)

At an intergovernmental level, for instance, the World Bank developed Principles on Identification in the context of development (endorsed by numerous partners) and has brought together various stakeholders under the ID2020 partnership, which focuses on how digital technologies can support legal identity deployment. And in 2021, the African Union Commission is also reportedly working on developing a continental digital ID framework for adoption in October.

Continental enthusiasm for digital ID interventions is often supported by global initiatives or funding aimed at extracting more value from the African Free Trade Area. Various multilateral agencies, global NGOs, and foreign donors are, at the same time, providing technical support as well as funding the deployment of digital ID roll-out across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Besides the promise digital ID apparently promises to hold for economic development and contributions to GDP, it can also support other goals, from social protection to migration to coping with crises like a pandemic. These opportunities are, however, accompanied by risks that need to be mitigated from a policy perspective.

Opportunities and risks

Frequent concerns about digital IDs include how public versus private purposes impact the roll-out of digital ID; whether interventions are mandatory or voluntary; what the extent of proposed data collection is and how (individual and collective) privacy is impacted; who benefits and who is excluded from such interventions; who has the right to access the data and for what purposes; whether there is a risk of mission creep; and what are the other collateral risks and benefits of such interventions. 

recent report on digital ID in Uganda, for example, argues that the country’s national digital ID system, Ndaga Muntu, has led to ‘mass exclusion, shutting out as many as one third of Uganda’s adult population, and has become a barrier for women and older persons, as well as many other marginalized individuals, to access their human rights.’

Given an increasing number of examples like this critique of Ndaga Muntu, the growing appetite for digital ID on the continent and across the world is accompanied by a pressing need to examine their impact on human rights, the rule of law, and the people who will be included (or excluded) from related socio-technical systems. 

Mapping digital ID in Africa

To investigate some of these questions, Research ICT Africa and the Centre for Internet and Society recently joined forces for a project to examine the development of digital ID systems in an African context. This research, which is supported by the Omidyar Network, is intended to provide a series of questions against which proposed or already-developed digital ID systems can be thoroughly assessed.

To do so, this research project draws on an Evaluation Framework for Digital Identities, which CIS initially developed to assess the Aadhar system in India. The framework uses three kinds of checks — rule of law tests, rights-based tests, and risks-based tests — to assess the potential impacts of digital ID systems. In doing so, it provides a potentially valuable resource for an array of stakeholders, from civil society actors concerned about impacts, to the technical community involved in the development of such initiatives, to the private sector responsible for funding or financing initiatives, to government officials interested in deploying digital ID systems for e-government, e-commerce, or other purposes. 

By adjusting the Framework for the African context, this project assesses the trade-offs that are made while building and assessing digital ID systems on the continent to ensure that human rights are adequately protected. To do so, RIA first carefully selected ten regional partners with different developmental agendas, diverse institutional histories, and potentially colourful experiences with digital ID, namely Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The chosen partners each have deeper knowledge of local context, including relevant legal systems, historical and institutional contexts, and technological uptake in their unique jurisdiction.

Using the Framework, partners have each developed a comprehensive case study. These cases offer a snapshot of the state of identity in the countries selected as a complement to other mapping exercises. It also forms the basis for extension of the repository of development in relation to digital ID systems and the necessary data protection frameworks required for numerous other digital initiatives across the continent.

This series

In this series, Africa’s Digital ID Dispatches, we hope to explore some of the findings from this project, and also to benefit from lessons learned elsewhere, like India. 

In the next installation of this series, we first explore basic concepts that can help readers understand what we mean when we talk about digital ID. Thereafter, we travel to India and hear from country partners there about what they found when they assessed the Aadhar system using the Evaluation Framework, what Africans can learn from the Indian example of Aadhar, and why the Framework is so useful for assessing digital IDs in uniquely African contexts with specific developmental challenges.

** This research was conducted by Research ICT Africa in partnership with the Centre for Internet and Society, and generously supported by the Omidyar Network.