UNICEF urges methodical and wholistic approach in Africa’s race for digital identity

UNICEF urges methodical and wholistic approach in Africa’s race for digital identity

United Nations agencies have taken an increasing role in ID4Africa and other digital identity-related initiatives over the past few years. UNICEF Associate Director and Global Chief of Child Protection Cornelius Williams joined ID4Africa’s Board of Directors last September, and representatives of United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) joined in April.

Asked about the state of African identity ecosystems by Biometric Update at ID4Africa 2019 in Johannesburg, UNICEF’s Williams first emphasizes that digital identity must be preceded by legal identity, and linked to civil registries. In that regard, some countries are quite advanced, including Egypt, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Madagascar. Many African nations, however, are yet to build an effective legal framework, according to Williams.

From the foundation of civil registry, the legal and digital ID can be relatively easily taken, but he warns, “if you leapfrog into digital identity without getting civil registration infrastructure on line, you’re going to have a problem.” The legal framework provides the mandate, enables probatable documents, and addresses concerns like data privacy.

Resources are tight for all developing world governments running identification programs, so it is important for them not to be “called away by the Sirens,” Williams says. “What concerns us is that investment has shifted.”

He notes that in one large African country, the identity system and the civil registry staff sit on opposite sides of the same room, the imbalance in their programs’ funding visibly evident. Countries can also end up with parallel systems when appropriate foundations are not established. Sierra Leone, where Williams was born, considered launching a completely new identity system parallel to a birth registry system that was already registering more than 70 percent of births.

This is why the UN’s legal identity agenda prioritizes speaking with one voice, not providing confusing or conflicting information to member states, and supporting the efforts of the World Bank. The unified message delivered includes the importance of unified systems, and Williams holds up the Egyptian identity system, in which a single unique number identifies each individual from birth to death, as an example for developing systems. This allows the identifier to be used often, for a range of different government services and programs, but also early, for programs UNICEF is involved in, such as vaccinations.

“If we get this right, that means a functional identity across sectors and administrative systems can be done. Then the immunization person doesn’t have to have a separate system. He taps into the national system.”

Collaboration with the health sector to link health services with national systems is one of UNICEF’s major successes, according to Williams. He argues that health officials should often play a major role in the registration process, because they are so often present, in one form or another, at the beginning of life. That means giving health care workers a legal mandate to perform registrations. Williams also wants countries to seek out and be given the best technical advice, but also stresses the importance of respecting sovereignty.

“Register the child where the child is born. That’s where the digital technology comes in. The IT solution delivers the information from that location all the way back to the capital, where the population database may be.”

While this may be possible, Williams says, through “the man in the bush with a mobile phone,” the technical challenge is only a part the necessary whole, and only if the man in question is legally mandated to play that role. Effective identification requires a complete ecosystem, legally mandated and properly regulated.

Faced with a situation in which it could efficiently register people through Tier II and III health care providers, Uganda empowered them to legally carry out that registration through secondary legislation, Williams points out.

The UN’s Africa Programme for Accelerated Improvement of Civil Registration and Vital Statistic (APAI-CRVS) costed strategic plan 2017-2021 can be applied to countries based on World Bank assessments as they are carried out. Meanwhile UNDESA and UNICEF are working on guidelines, and the World Bank ID4D Group provides its 10 Principles for Identification to help countries formulate their foundations effectively.

The APAI-CRVS Costed Strategic Plan, 2017-2021 marks a shift in the organization’s output from the preparatory phase to emphasize capacity building specific to country needs provides a road map with strategic analysis, goals and enablers.

Williams advocates for an agile approach to system building in order to make legal changes, as Uganda has, and says that doing to is a matter of political will.

As countries establish the foundations of their identity systems, the African Union and the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) have a role to play in educating and co-ordinating member states.
Those co-ordination and education efforts have been going on for most of a decade, and they are now building on each other, Williams says, making it easier for policy-makers to recognize what they need to do.

“It’s a wave, more and more, and it’s these kinds of meetings that educate the civil registrars, that educate the ministers of interior: ‘Don’t go for the shiny object, do it right, have a wholistic system, Make sure all the systems are talking to each other, and there is interoperability.’”

Policy-makers are already highly motivated to build systems that work, because of the goals they can only achieve with functional legal and digital identity systems.

“Without this you won’t get you e-government,” Williams points out. “Without this you won’t get your financial inclusion.”

Still, biometrics and identity system vendors can help governments understand the need for a wholistic identity system. Rather than advocating for a particular ethical practice, Williams says he believes a principled corporate approach to serving the developing world market for identity will make a major impact. Vendors should not only avoid selling band-aid solutions, but they can contribute to advancing the education of governments, who will listen to them.

“The reason I’m banging on about this is that what we have seen very clearly is that it’s no longer a binary system of the UN or development partners and governments from member states. The private sector, business, is now part of it. We’re never going to meet development goals without the private sector. How the private sector operates in this field is now very critical.”

Governments also need to learn from each other, Williams says. Intelligent government workers have navigated the space, and should be able to help others with the knowledge they need, from how to conduct presentations to the details of source code that can enable interoperability.

“They need to make sure that they actually have a holistic system, and there are some key principles that need to be covered when they are negotiating, or they will not do well for their people.”

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