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Activists urge Kenya not to repeat mistakes of Huduma Namba in new digital ID plan

Activists urge Kenya not to repeat mistakes of Huduma Namba in new digital ID plan

Nine human and digital rights groups including Access Now and the Kenya Human Rights Commission have called on the government of Kenya to make sure a rights impact assessment is undertaken as part of its plans to introduce changes to the country’s digital ID system.

The new administration under President William Ruto is planning a huge digital transformation drive that will include a new digital ID system, said to be different from the Huduma Namba which has been dogged by controversy.

Concerns that must be addressed

In a statement, the groups hailed the government’s efforts to digitize the country, but listed concerns that must be taken into account as the new plan looks set to be implemented.

“As civil society organizations, we recognize that digitization of public and government services is inevitable and has the potential to make citizen services more accessible and convenient; we laud government efforts to better serve citizens. It cannot, however, be ignored that a transition of this magnitude comes with pitfalls that must be addressed, – especially if the design and implementation process is not conducted in a transparent, inclusive and human-rights-centred manner,” the groups said in the statement.

Outlining their fear for the new system, they added: “Concerns in the proposed roll-out of UPI include lack of transparency on the legal basis of UPI, lack of effective, nation-wide public participation on the system, uncertainty about data protection, whether human rights impact assessments will be conducted and made available for public review, including the assessment of the risks of exclusion of millions of Kenyans, and the speed which the roll-out is being planned.”

Lessons of the past

According to the groups, the government must also take note of the mistakes of the past also by showing proof of transparency in the implementation of the new digital ID system, adding that it should not be seen to be exclusionary as is the case with the Huduma Namba.

“Lessons from Huduma Namba rollout show that if not done right, implementing digital ID systems produces further inequalities for minority and historically marginalized communities, including the Nubian, Borana, Swahili and Somali communities as well as double registered persons (Kenyans whose biometrics are in the refugee database) who already struggle with systemic discrimination in obtaining registration and nationality documents,” the statement notes.

The call from the organizations comes in the wake of plans by Nairobi to introduce the Unique Personal Identifier from July 1, with the government saying the aim is to provide citizens with a lifelong identification number starting from birth that will eventually serve as an ID number.

The groups are worried that the UPI could also “increase inequities for vulnerable communities who do not have access to birth certificates and IDs due to discrimination, distance, cost, corruption, and other barriers.”

Greater public engagement

As part of their proposal, the groups urge the government not to rush with the implementation of the system. “We ask the government to instead, first engage the public, assess what needs to be done, and institute strong technological, policy and legal frameworks to guard against the long-term problems such a system is likely to bring.”

“Having been through a similar but largely flawed and poorly rolled out process with the Huduma Namba, we reiterate that in order for the implementation of the digital identity system in Kenya to be inclusive and human rights centred, it is imperative that the government incorporates past learnings in a transparent manner and implements court orders arising from Huduma Namba litigation.”

They also used their letter to point out some of the hurdles which have prevented many Kenyans from obtaining their birth certificates and ID cards.

“While acknowledging the government’s recent commitments to issue ID cards within 21 days nationwide and issue birth certificates on the same day, we also seek redress for the lack of implementation of this directive and the administrative hurdles that have effectively denied people access to identification for so long.”

Kenya hopes to benefit from the expertise of NADRA in the implementation of the new digital ID system.

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