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African cross-border and regional identity management schemes reach distribution stage


The African Development Bank (AfDB) recently introduced its new fingerprint-embedded Laissez-Passer document at ID4Africa 2017 in Windhoek, Namibia. The travel document for regional development is one of a series of regional projects across the continent with the goal of using digital identity and biometrics to enable cross-border travel.

Another such project, the ECOWAS Biometric Identity Card, has reached the distribution stage in some countries. While the program is in early stages, it has shown potential to speed border crossing while reducing the problem of fake travel documents, Laouali Chaibou, Commissioner for Trade, Customs, Free Movement and Tourism for the ECOWAS Commission told an audience on day two of the annual event in support of universal digital identity for Africans.

While all member states must meet a minimum threshold of security to issue the card, including capturing a fingerprint image, the card also has the capacity to add additional information, to allow its security and use to be extended as the technical capabilities of ECOWAS member states evolve. ECOWAS is supported in the project by a number of international organizations and development agencies, including the World Bank.

The World Bank is working with countries and regional organizations on several biometric identity projects in Africa. Lead Social Protection Strategist Laura Rawlings described the objectives the organization has for identity programs at the national level to the ID4Africa audience.

“We are aiming to support countries to ensure universal access to identification, to also allow for reliable mutual recognition and robust performance based on the issuing of unique numbers, to have a shared foundational platform within a country to provide access to a number of functional applications, and very importantly, as has been spoken about a lot over the past two days, to have a link with civil registration, so that there are breeder documents, and there is a foundation for the unique based on civil registration.”

Another organization supporting ECOWAS and its member states under the Biometric Identity Card project is the United Nations’ Migration Agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Charles Harns, a former Senior Technical Consultant, Immigration and Border Management for the IOM, says that while the initiative is important, it is also highly complex.

“It is a good example of how difficult it can be to align political aspirations at the policy level, with international standards, appropriate technologies and local capacities,” Harns says. Additionally, most ECOWAS region land borders are not equipped to read any computerized document. The IOM reviewed and created a roadmap for implementation of the project, and has also supported ECOWAS member states by helping them implement its Migration Information and Data Analysis System (MIDAS), complete with a dedicated solar power source. The system is in use in several countries in the ECOWAS region, and 17 African countries in total.

While regional projects supported by the World Bank in eastern and southern Africa are not as far advanced as the ECOWAS Biometric Identity Card or the African Development Bank’s Laissez-Passer system, they have the opportunity to catch up quickly, utilizing “south-south” information sharing to accelerate planning and implementation.

“All development practitioners and economists agree that Africa is the last frontier of global socio-economic transformation,” says AfDB Secretary-General Professor Vincent O. Nmehielle, who introduced the new Laissez-Passer document. “This conference is an indication. It means that Africa is a place to do business, and the bank is robustly involved in this process.”

Nmehielle said that over 40 member states already accepted the Laissez-Passer prior to the release of the new document, “even in the terrible state that it was in, in terms of security requirements.” The opportunity and the will to develop robust African regional identity schemes is apparent, but so are the challenges.

Chief Technology Officer of Africa’s Safety & Security division at NEC Grahame Saunders said that those challenges include standards for international interoperability, infrastructure, and even lack of commercial technological capability. Some of the African countries with the most advanced identity programs are attempting to extend them to include infants, but biometric identification of babies is in its infancy. NEC exhibited a prototype at the conference for enrolling the fingerprints of children as young as six hours old, which it hopes is a step toward meeting the needs of the developing national identity programs.

Successful regional cooperation also requires a maintenance of national sovereignty, WCC Smart Search and Match VP Sales, Identity Market, Tarvinder S. Sembhi stressed. He advocates building interoperable systems with national control over information sharing through an approach utilizing standard interfaces and transaction management to operate data protection walls, data control gates, and data sharing bridges necessary to a secure identity-sharing system.

Lead Policy Officer, Global ICT Group, Transport and ICT for the World Bank Samia Melhem, who moderated the discussion, pointed out that most of the questions from the audience – which consisted primarily of officials for government identity authorities – pertain to how to implement a regional cross-border movement system, like the AfDB Laissez-Passer or the ECOWAS Biometric Identity Card, rather than why they should do so.

Allowing free movement for development officials, and for those within the economic region which has progressed the farthest toward universal free movement backed by digital identity are modest beginnings of an ambitious plan. If successful, they could represent the crucial first steps towards a system allowing Africans to travel safely throughout the continent by using biometrics.

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