Digital identity for all push in Africa now has clarity and political will: ID4Africa Executive Chairman

Increased online presence and new services planned ahead of 2021 meeting
Digital identity for all push in Africa now has clarity and political will: ID4Africa Executive Chairman

Several major developments in the push for universal identification have come out of the global pandemic, raising hopes that biometrics can enable many people currently unable to prove who they are to access services to do so soon. ID4Africa Executive Chairman Dr. Joseph Atick told Biometric Update in an exclusive interview that in terms of political will and government motivation, what kind of identity is most important and the form it should take, the lens of COVID has brought together a spectrum of issues to provide unprecedented clarity.

The Movement for good universal ID across Africa wrapped up a well-attended and highly successful series of three webinars last week. Atick will soon publish a summation blog to the ID4Africa knowledge hub to highlight some key findings. The webinar panels were made up of experts from the identity authorities within African governments, international development partners, and industry representatives.

There were over a thousand people registered to Zoom for the first event, with more watching on YouTube or through the ID4Africa website, and similar numbers for the other two. Slightly under half of all attendees were from Africa, providing an encouraging sign for the organization’s short-term plans (more on those below).

Each webinar yielded a wealth of insights about the current situation and how it has affected ID strategies, and several themes can be identified across all three. Similar to how 9/11 changed the conversation around identity to take in security concerns, and the launch of Aadhaar brought in social inclusion as a driver, the pandemic has made identity necessary for public health and safety, and even government operation.

“What we’re seeing from COVID is that not all flavors of identity are equally impactful,” Atick observes. “Clearly the fact that countries in this public health crisis need to continue operating at a distance, remotely et cetera creates a significant demand for a version of identity that we used to call service-oriented digital identity.”

While identity programs have ground to a halt, delaying enrollments and implementation, Atick believes the spike in demand means they will actually accelerate, and could radically alter the timelines of ID for all efforts. World Bank Senior Economist Robert Palacios said during the second webinar that the big change he would make to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 would be to move up the target date from 2030 to 2022.

Another dimension is what Atick calls “identity plus-plus,” which he says “is not only a digital identity that you use in a dematerialized context, but it’s also a digital identity that you are onboarded to digitally. With no human contact it was established. The screening was done digitally. That’s now a new paradigm.”

The undeniable demand for digital plus-plus identity “is going to force a change in the political will,” Atick says, driving countries without digital assets and digital identity plus-plus to accelerate their programs.

“Because they saw a difference, when you look at the countries that have these digital assets in place, these registers, these digital identities and all this stuff, they were able to turn on programs for management of their populations,” he explains. “Taking care of their health needs, taking care of their social assistance needs, education…there was a macro-view that was available to the government to say ‘now I know where my people are, because now more than ever I need to be managing them while they’re sheltered in place.’”

The new urgency to have these capabilities will also unlock funding that have previously been earmarked for investments in the future, if at all. Governments can no longer afford to wait.

“We’re understanding from sources that there are more resources, funding and finance for identity-related projects because they’re being considered now as essential services,” says Atick. “We cannot function as a society, when we have pandemics, without digital identity.

A point of debate at previous ID4Africa meetings has been the prioritization of legal versus digital identity. SDG 16.9 actually targets legal identity for all to ensure their rights. Identity which is legal but not digital would be practically useless during pandemic, however. A digital identity is what allows countries to continue operating, and people to participate in their economies, Atick points out. Authorities that link a digital identity to legal rights, as is often done through birth registration, can stand up an effective holistic identity system. What a billion people around the world need right now, however, is a way to interact with others remotely and securely.

Overall, the pandemic has triggered a major change in the way we look at identity, according to Atick. Demand has accelerated and become clearer and more specific as well, but the same is try for the risks associated with identity as well.

Atick reports that ID4Africa and other organizations have “severe concerns” about the risks, particularly around what UNICEF Associate Director and Global Chief of Child Protection Cornelius Williams referred to in the second webinar as “the fault line” between haves and have-nots. That divide may be financial, but increasingly it is also a function of access to technology, including the skills to use it.

“When we advocate for digital identity plus-plus in these countries, we advocate for also investments in ICT infrastructure, giving people access, and also beyond digital, which is what UNICEF has been calling for,” Atick says.

Calling for investment is one thing, but receiving it another, as the identity for development and identity for all movement has found repeatedly. The urgent need for digital infrastructure to carry out remote processes has recast the entire issue, however.

“It’s an incredible era that we’re living in, from the identity perspective,” Atick muses. “It’s never been urgent as much as it is now, and it’s never been focused as it is now. It’s focused, yet it’s a broad swath of transformational capabilities that are going to be demanded.”

Even with funding unlocked and programs resuming, important decisions and challenges remain ahead.

“Now it becomes a question of how we’re going to do the onboarding and what channels we’re going to use for onboarding. You’re going to have more than one channel.”

Enrollment centers will open again eventually, but with extra precautions and sanitization measures. Mobile self-enrollment will take on a new prominence. Programs will have to take care of those without mobile devices through door-to-door enrollment teams, which could be combined with crisis communication or health checks, or agent networks where one person’s device is used to enroll other within the same community. A range of issues related to these processes must be worked out by governments. Will remote onboarding meet all requirements, or will it need to generate a temporary digital identity pending final verification in-person?

“The important thing is that the politicians can no longer ignore dealing with this issue,” Atick emphasizes. “You have social protection, digital identity, economic development, service delivery, all of it is being brought together, and they can no longer afford to be parallel pathways far away from each other.”

India was able to register 5 million people in a month to disburse emergency cash relief. That kind of capacity is already available to governments around the world, in theory. Innovation and new processes will also play an important role in accelerating the coverage of digital identity.

Contactless biometrics, self-sanitizing contact systems, remote onboarding protocols, using AI to detect fraud patterns, and using social media to do screening are all mentioned by Atick as potentially valuable areas for innovation.

“We have to start accepting metadata that is outside the realm of traditional models,” he says, explaining the latter with an example of a LinkedIn account with thousands of connections amassed over several years as proof that the person is not a synthetic identity.

The new situation calls for new methods of establishing and proving identity. “It’s going to shift what gets developed by the industry,” Atick predicts.

The industry needs to innovate for all of the processes mentioned above while still protecting their privacy, and Atick advises companies to build privacy by design into their products and use it as a differentiator.

As for ID4Africa, the Movement is shifting to a “hybrid model.” Atick says nothing can replace the annual general meeting, which will likely be held next during the second half of 2021 in Marrakesh. The success of the webinar series, however, has encouraged the organization to continue to engage and collaborate virtually throughout the year. These engagements will facilitate knowledge sharing and brainstorming to crowdsource solutions to the wave of challenges facing identity authorities in Africa.

ID4Africa will have a greater presence online, and introduce new formats and more collaborations to bring more services to the various sectors in the digital identity ecosystem.

“We are well positioned to play that role because we have a centralized view in the middle of all these stakeholders so we can bring to them the connectivity that they need and we can drive the agenda forward,” Atick says.

Which is a good thing, because 2022 begins in only 18 months.

This post was updated at 8:36pm Eastern on June 29, 2020 to correct Dr. Atick’s position title.

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