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UNECA expert highlights importance of digital ID for Africa’s post COVID-19 economy

UNECA expert highlights importance of digital ID for Africa’s post COVID-19 economy

The Lead Advisor for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA’s) Digital Centre of Excellence, Tunde Fafunwa, has explained why African nations must be more intentional about developing digital identity systems especially as they look to rebuild stronger economies in the post-COVID-19 era.

Fafunwa made the point in a recent interview he granted to COVID-19 Africa Watch, an initiative of economic think tank Milken Institute.

In the interview, the UNECA official, who is said to have worked over the years to help develop digital identity initiatives in Africa, touched on other key issues related to digital ID in Africa such as how it affects financial inclusion and what can be done by governments to speed up the implementation of digital ID projects for citizens.

According to Fafunwa, the case for a digital ID in Africa is more significant now than ever before, cognizant of the economic ravages of the pandemic and how it has affected physical business and government transactions.

“The case for digital ID is significant, and we’d say overwhelming… Now, the move towards a cashless society to reduce physical interaction is gaining traction: many locations are closed or restricted in terms of access, so virtual transactions –online digital transactions – become the key way to get information, to get services and to perform financial transactions. And in many cases, the only way to do that is with some kind of digital identification. So a digital ID is even more important now than it was before,” Fafunwa said.

Political can help realize digital ID dream

He said for the digital ID dream in Africa to be effectively realized, there is need for political will from governments as well as broad-based consultations and stakeholder collaboration, despite an existing key challenge where about 500 million Africans lack a foundational ID document with which to carry out official transactions.

“…we need to use, across the continent, whatever records are available. And that means election records, that means population databases, and conduct a widespread registration. It requires organization, but it’s possible. Malawi has done that, where they registered almost 18 million citizens over a period of several months. So it can be done quickly and effectively where there’s a political will to do so,” the UNECA expert explained.

“So a rollout of an ID system in today’s environment involves financial regulators, security overview, internal administration, the political decision-making, because identification and counting people and different groups have political implications. It becomes a lot more complicated in today’s environment than it might have in the past. In order to be successful, there’s a very clear need to convene discussions and planning with broad stakeholders,” he added.

Digital ID can reduce digital divide

Speaking on the aspect of digital ID and financial inclusion for women, Fafunwa said it has the potential to help them have access to financial tools, and can also play a role in closing up the digital divide that is very much evident in Africa.

“The benefit of digital ID is that it provides an opportunity for women, for minorities, and for populations at risk to gain access to financial tools, to payment systems, to the ability to receive benefits. Digital ID can and should be used to reduce the digital divide and improve access, but it has to be designed in. The benefits of doing so are enormous,” explained Fafunwa.

African continental free trade initiative and digital ID

On the significance of digital ID in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, a free trade zone initiative already ratified by many African countries, the UNECA official said discussions about the digital aspects of the agreement have just been concluded, and that will be the basis for digital transactions, digital payments, digital ID and digital trade, among others.

“While the African Union is the overall body, and the treaty has been ratified across the continent, it still requires these very complex discussions on rules and protocols. The Economic Commission for Africa’s approach to this is, while those are developing and ongoing, to provide the technical work, the use cases, and the pilots that we are currently engaged in. These can act as references to the discussions and provide real test cases as those protocols are being discussed and finalized,” he stated.

In the interview, Tunde Fafunwa also talked about the various models which Africa countries can use to set up digital ID systems, citing Aadhaar as a reference model for foundational IDs. He mentioned other comprehensive approaches to IDs such as Estonia, but sustained that he believes in a “federated approach to ID,” which he says, is developing and has the potential for multiple sources of identification.

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