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Digital ID infrastructure broadens economies, worth the effort — panel

Digital ID infrastructure broadens economies, worth the effort — panel

In an interesting twist, a bureaucrat from a tiny West African nation has advice about fielding digital IDs in developed nations. Build trust, be digitally integrated and be bold.

The message was delivered by Cina Lawson, Togo’s minister of Digital Economy and Transformation. She was a panelist this week in a World Economic Forum discussion (video here) on how to scale digital public infrastructures. A recent editorial by a WEF Project Fellow also explored the potential of self-sovereign digital identity to return control to individuals.

The digital infrastructure panel also included an executive with Telenor Group, a Norwegian state-owned multinational telecom firm, and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, a government investment group.

Everyone on the panel agreed that digital connectivity and interoperability must become universal for the sake of broad economic growth. And transparency is essential to success, and it can be it can be achieved in private-public infrastructure projects.

Sigve Brekke, CEO at Telenor, said it has been hard to convince governments that their economies require universal access to the internet, preferably through phones. It is the foundation of a digital economy, he said.

It can seem like an extravagant giveaway, particularly when many nations do not have universal sanitation. (Telenor is active in digital ID services.)

Creating a digital foundation is necessary in developing economies, agreed Bård Vegar Solhjell, secretary-general with the development agency, and that foundation has to be as integrated as possible. Not only across state agencies, he said, but across borders so that biometric systems, including digital ID infrastructure can be shared cost-effectively.

There are analogous shared, digital projects already. Solhjell pointed to DHIS2, or District Health Information Systems version 2, which was launched in 1994 in South Africa and now is led by the University of Oslo.

He noted that Sri Lanka used the international, open-source platform to create a COVID tracking app now used in 50 nations.

Lawson‘s experience in the matter stems from an all-digital program for Togolese — the creation of a universal basic income. Travel restrictions prevented much of the population from even traveling to work, and the economy teetered dangerously.

The government collected information, such as occupation, from the closest thing Togo has to a national ID — voter identification cards, which are distributed free and are held by 93 percent of adults. (Actual national IDs come with a fee and so are held by only 30 percent of adults, according to Lawson.)

She said developing nations like hers have obstacles to change the same as any nation, but fewer than those in developed economies. She encouraged world leaders to be bold in creating digital infrastructure.

The rewards are economies that are broader and, at least so far, more stable than those hampered by digital-services silos.

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