Trust and transparency plus $66 billion would bring Africa up to speed for ID and digital economy

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An investment of $60 billion would bring Africa’s digital infrastructure up to speed and $6 billion would cover ID provision for the continent’s 500 million people without legal identity as long as trust for such schemes is established and interoperability standards found, according to a panel discussion hosted by the Africa division of US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

After a keynote speech from the UN, panelists from the World Bank, philanthropic investors Omidyar Network and USAID discussed the challenges to identity documentation and civil registration plus existing and potential solutions and the benefits to African countries of digital ID sitting within a broader digital economy framework.

“Digital identity is one of the most important topics of digital development if not all of development today,” said Christopher Burns, director of the Center for Digital Development at USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab. Burns described digital ID as another layer of infrastructure: “An inclusive digital ecosystem for us, is a key component of a country’s journey to self-reliance.”

With digital ID for refugees, “not only do you make the invisible visible, you give dignity to people. But more importantly, on a continent where we need to grow further we need to grow faster, we need to be able to use every brain that we have,” said Vera Songwe, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), in a video conference keynote speech to launch the event.

Speaking from Ethiopia, home to 3.5 million refugees, Songwe emphasized how the continent with the most refugees has so much to gain from ID: “how can we give these people who have already been treated poorly by life, who are suffering the consequences of something that they did not create, the opportunity to reinsert themselves in economic activity?” She contrasted issues in the Horn of Africa to Côte d’Ivoire where its membership of an economic community means those coming from neighboring states can readily contribute, making up 16 percent of Ivorian GDP.

Digitizing economies is as important as digital ID schemes which is why ECA has “been asked by the AU to come up with a digital ID, digital trade and digital economy framework to help guide how the continent moves on this issue,” said Songwe. She stated that World Bank calculations found that $60 billion would bring the continent’s digital infrastructure up to speed which, in conjunction with the continental free trade agreement and interoperable digital ID schemes would unlock huge development potential.

$60 billion is roughly what the World Bank Group spends every year on its commitments to help countries with development.

Vyjayanti Desai from the World Bank’s Identification for Development Initiative (ID4D), said “We estimate a back-of-the-envelope calculation for Africa alone, and it would take about $6 billion in financing, which is not insignificant but is not insurmountable either. It’s all very doable.” The World Bank has already put $1 billion into such projects. Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 – the right to a legal ID for all by 2030 – is “absolutely achievable” she added.

Omidyar Network’s Magdi Amin believes trust in ID schemes is essential for their success and for security. Trust comes about at the legislative level via data privacy: “Without data protection, without institutions to govern how this is done … you end up tipping the balance of power between the citizen and the state in ways that may not be very constructive”.

“We believe that you get to security when you empower and entrust people,” said Amin on the issues with civil registration when authorities are reluctant to enrol non-nationals in schemes out of fear it may confer citizenship, “you can’t get to security if you’re excluding large shares of your population. It actually contributes to insecurity.” (A couple of days after this event, members of the West African trading bloc ECOWAS met in Ougagdougou and agreed to start sharing intelligence and possibly biometric data to fight terrorism.)

Burns agreed about trust: “Digital identity must first demonstrate this tangible trust over a notional or promissory trust and that’s why what we’ve seen at USAID – digital identity systems cropping up at an activity or project level because there’s this inherent, immediate benefit that the user can see,” he said, citing programs that issue smart card for accessing food aid compared to the more nebulous national schemes.

The panelists agreed on the importance of digital ID as a tool of and driver for development generally. They also all recognized the growing significance of digital development as an area of the development sector. “We may need to see more ID platforms that are more for a development and digital economy perspective,” said the World Bank’s Desai.

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