How Malawi established a biometric national ID system at breakneck speed

Points-based citizenship and youth engagement
How Malawi established a biometric national ID system at breakneck speed

Just three years ago, Malawi was without a national registry or ID system and had little in the way of skills to establish such infrastructure. The UNDP led a multi-agency project to train personnel, foster trust and undertake a mass registration. The chief technical advisor for the scheme was Tariq Malik, former chairman of NADRA, Pakistan’s identity agency, who has outlined for the Center for Global Development the journey the team took to successfully establish a national biometric registry in just a couple of years for just $52 million, forming a model for other countries to follow.

Back in 2017, Malawi relied on traditional local recognition of its citizens alongside a patchwork of functional documentation such as driving licenses and voter cards, some but not all including biometrics. It was one of the only countries in the region not to have a functioning national registry and ID system. It was recording around 2-3 percent of births and only 55,000 people had ID of an adult population of around 9 million. A fresh voter registration was done every four years for each election.

When it came time plan yet another one-off electoral roll for the 2019 elections, the UNDP and the government of Malawi began to look at aiming higher. With the help of UK Aid, Irish Aid, USAID, the European Union and government of Norway, a team was formed to create instead a national system to record births and deaths. The lack of such as system was proving problematic for planning of government services, allowed ghost workers and pensioners and the concern that non-Malawians were abusing the free national healthcare system.

Irish Aid held a year of meetings with government stakeholders to produce a ‘proof of concept.’ The government of Malawi put up half the cost, later downgraded to 40 percent as the other organizations made up the balance. The National Registration Bureau could be self-financing if it charged small fees for verification at points such as the opening of a bank account. Other departments saw clear benefits, as did the private sector and, most importantly, as did Malawians themselves.

Therefore, planning was concluded in early 2017 with the aim to register the biometrics of 9 million Malawians and have ID cards issued by June 2018. The UNDP hired 4,200 young college graduates to be registration officers. The project booked all the hotel rooms in Lilongwe for three months to carry out the training. Efforts were made to hire persons with disabilities, women and albinos who face severe discrimination. With an effective proof of concept, the team skipped a pilot and went to registration proper earlier than planned.

“I don’t feel comfortable with pilot projects. My experience is that if you become too focused on the pilot, it becomes the project in itself and the primary project waits for an indefinite time in search of perfection,” writes Malik, “Paying more attention to the minutest details during planning pays off more than running a pilot. A proof-of- concept was already done; hence I didn’t see the need for a pilot.”

Malawians were sceptical that the project would succeed after witnessing so many other failed projects. The team ran a civic education campaign to try to counter the reticence. Civil servants were registered first as part of proving the concept, but this had the unfortunate result of making the endeavour appear elitist, something which had to be tackled with more meetings with stakeholders and religious groups.

A points-based system was devised for determining citizenship. 100 points was the threshold needed and various documents would score different numbers of points, from 5 for a tax document, 10 for a marriage certificate, 30 for a pre-2015 birth certificate, 80 for a personal testimony of a village head and advisor, 100 for a national ID card presented in person by a biological parent who is a Malawian.

70 percent of Malawi is without electricity and the remaining 30 percent suffers frequent outages so the team used 2,000 solar-powered biometric capture kits. Additional batteries had to be despatched to teams as they were using the equipment during all daylight hours meaning no chance to recharge the kits. They also created a customer service center with two telcos.

“The result: we were able to begin in May 2017 and finished the final registrations early, on 24 November. In a record time of 180 days, 9.1 million citizens were registered with their biometric attributes! Malawi’s first ever multi-modal biometric citizen database was established,” writes Malik.

The continued work since the mass registration, with 15 card printers installed in Lilongwe means over 10 million people now have ID. Registration rates ranged from between 90 percent and 105 percent of the projected population, typically where there were large numbers of rural migrants moving to cities.

53 percent of recipients were female, possibly as a result of large numbers of men migrating to South Africa for work. Registration will continue in embassies.

The team decided on producing smartcards with applets for travel – the cards can be used for national flights – and another that can be used for accessing health services. This also standardized medical records and meant that citizens do not need to carry separate health insurance cards. 8 million voters used their cards to register for the 2019 election, rapidly speeding up registration with a scan of their cards.

The registration and card printing and distribution came to around $4.97 per person, including the kit and staff costs. The first card is free but there will be a fee for replacement cards.

The biometric registration kits have been left with the government as an asset and various departments bid for their use such as the health department to register live births and the electoral commission for voter registration.

The staff trained for the project have been able to work on subsequent use of the kits and the benefits of a national ID system are being felt by multiple departments. The National Registration and Identification System (NRIS) is a catalyst for other departments. The electoral commission as mentioned, but also the Malawi Revenue Authority as everyone registered for ID is also registered as a potential taxpayer. Banks can now verify new and existing customers, passport applications will be far easier to verify and even land ownership disputes might be tackled with ID and post offices may be equipped with the biometric kits to provide services in the community.

“In a nutshell,” concludes Malik, “the NRIS project is a gamechanger. It has the potential of transforming governance in Malawi. Three key drivers of its success and continued effectiveness are commitment, coordination, and cooperation among all stakeholders.”

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