New approaches to biometrics and digital ID systems in Africa considered to achieve universal coverage

Biometrics and digital ID

Though efforts to deliver identity to all people in Africa through biometrics and other digital technologies have been stopped in their tracks by the COVID-19 crisis, lessons from the pandemic may ultimately help the continent reach its identity-for-all goals, according to an analysis of  ID4Africa’s recent webinar series.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Identity Management: A Collective Perspective” was written by ID4Africa Executive Chairman Dr. Joseph J. Atick, and examines the hybrid model the Movement has adopted to maintain community engagement during the pandemic, and the sudden halt to identity enrollments and registration across Africa.

Nearly every African country was represented, and 92 from around the world, at the three webinars hosted by ID4Africa with government, development agency and industry perspectives on the impact COVID-19 has had on identity systems in Africa. Atick shared his thoughts on the webinar series shortly after its conclusion.

The document reviews key insights from the webinars, including the wake-up call the pandemic has provided to governments about the value of useful, digital identity systems, and its exposure of fault lines in social protection and opportunity.

Development agency operations have also been severely impacted, but funding remains available, and may increase. The importance of public-private partnerships is also emphasized. Demand for touchless biometrics in Africa has suddenly emerged, but for the immediate future, contact fingerprints will remain the dominant modality, with adjustments to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. End-to-end digital services have also taken on new importance. Self-enrollment and self-onboarding are necessary components of such systems. Mobile platforms and cashless payments have gone from emerging trends to vital tools.

The most profound change may be in recognizing the kind of identity that actually helps the lives of the people who hold it.

“It is clear what the world needs now is not a legal identity by 2030, but a useful and safe identity-for-all, now,” Atick writes.

The inadequacy of the SDG 16.9 indicator, which is the percentage of children under five years old with birth certificates, in the present circumstance is explored, as is the reaffirmation of the Principles on Identification formulated by the World Bank, with the three pillars taking on heightened importance with people’s broad reliance on effective, safe digital identification.

While authentication standards should be relaxed for use cases where inclusivity takes priority over fraud prevention, but the need for cybersecurity investment is underlined in this scenario, as threats to data protection and privacy have been magnified.

Atick concludes the special report with a call to share resources, including knowledge, and to work together in an open and collaborative manner led by multi-stakeholder conversations to help communities and individuals survive the present to thrive in the future.

A webinar titled “Spotlight on Unique Digital Identity Numbers” and featuring representatives from the World Bank and six African governments will be hosted by ID4Africa on July 23, 2020 at 2:30pm CET.

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