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Open-source, homegrown tech and systems reform can put birth registration on track

UNICEF’s Williams tells ID16.9 podcast
Open-source, homegrown tech and systems reform can put birth registration on track

Cornelius Williams joined the ID16.9 podcast just as he retires from his role as global director for child protection at UNICEF to discuss the progress made in the world, and Africa in particular, towards the goal of registering the birth of every child.

The broad move towards digital governance and public service delivery has made identity, and therefore the birth certificates that serve as breeder documents for national identity systems, more important than ever, Williams says.

The situation was thrown into stark relief during the pandemic, when many countries were unable to state with certainty what their mortality rate from Covid was, as “they didn’t have the denominator.”

Standing up a national identity system is a huge task, however, which “has to be owned, managed and developed by the government,” Williams argues. The development of a home-grown technology stack in Rwanda, however, shows that, as the title of the episode suggests, ‘Africa can do it.’ Open-source technologies have a significant role to play here.

African governments have largely become professionalized over the course of Williams career, gaining skills and education that they need to recognize the “overselling” of systems, and the need to do things differently than in some countries leading the digital charge, like Estonia. In countries with developing economies, digital-only systems are bound to fail their populations, according to Williams.

Williams shares insights on the role of twinning other government departments with civil registration authorities, how to motivate people to seek out ID for their children, and the long tail of public sector reform needed to make national ID systems sustainable.

As government digitize and prioritize identity, CRVS departments are gaining profile, allowing them to move beyond registration campaigns to more systematic improvements.

Ultimately, Williams cautions stakeholders to not be distracted by technology. “Focus on the system building,” he says.

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