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Rwanda’s planned digital ID could both increase and decrease exclusion

Researchers discuss pros and cons in Africa policy podcast
Rwanda’s planned digital ID could both increase and decrease exclusion

Some digital ID project researchers say the plan by Rwanda to implement a biometric digital ID card in the next few years could bring huge benefits for the country’s digital economy, but the risks and challenges in implementing the project must be meticulously studied and taken care of.

The experts were speaking recently on an episode of a podcast called. “The Africa Hour,” a production of the Africa Policy Research Institute (APRI) dedicated to discussing policy issues in different African countries. The podcast examined the successes and challenges of Rwanda’s digital ID project.

Rwanda recently okayed legislative amendments to introduce a digital ID ecosystem, and also to expand the scope of persons eligible for digital IDs in the country which would include children and stateless persons.

Benefits and opportunities

Hilda Barasa, a senior policy advisor with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, who researches on digital ID issues in Africa, welcomes Rwanda’s plan, saying “digital identity is something that underpins a country’s digital public infrastructure.”

“By and large, it is considered a key enabler of the digital economy. If you have a digital ID, you are able to access improved public services because the government will have a deeper understanding of the needs of the citizens. It can also help build a stronger and more inclusive digital economy,” she says.

Barasa adds that a recent study carried out in four countries including Rwanda showed that digital identity has the potential to improve how Rwandans in rural communities can seamlessly access certain public services such as registration for medical insurance using digital ID.

She explains that the purpose of the research was to plug the gap that existed in terms of quantifying the benefits of integrating digital IDs to routine day-to-day activities of citizens of the countries concerned.

“We got surprising results. Of all the four use cases we looked at, using digital ID to register for medical insurance came out strongest. It showed people could save up to 2.2 percent of their monthly income for medical insurance if they are able to use a digital ID for that purpose,” said Barasa.

“In some of the more remote villages that we went to, we realized that medical insurance centers are located about four hours way, and people of vulnerable groups have to walk that distance. Using a digital ID system to do all of this will bring multi-millions dollar benefits and saving to individuals.”

“I am really excited to see Rwanda committing to digital identity. The government’s objective of building this digital ID ecosystem to enable citizens use smart ID cards to access services, is definitely the right way to go,” she contends in the podcast.

Risks, challenges to watch out for

The benefits notwithstanding, there are a number of issues authorities must watch out for when implementing government-led digital ID programs at scale, says Katelyn Cioffi, senior research scholar at NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.

Cioffi says research done by her teams on digital ID projects shows that governments “always struggle with problems of exclusion which can take on a lot of different forms.”

“There are often groups or individuals who end up excluded entirely from the digital ID system because they are simply unbale, or in some cases, unwilling to register,” says Cioffi.

She adds: “even if someone has been enrolled, they may be enrolled in adverse times which leaves them vulnerable to further exclusion and discrimination. As an example, there could be errors in their data or they might have biometrics such as fingerprints which are difficult to read. This makes different stages of verification and authentication more difficult for them. In this case, they are actually part of the system, but it is very difficult for them to enjoy the benefits.”

Speaking further on the risks, Cioffi notes: “Digital ID systems have databases which can be weaponized as tools by both governments and the private sector to exclude, to surveil and to exert control over different groups. Our work focusses more on the rights of those who are vulnerable when such systems are deployed such as poor people, and ethnic minorities.”

“The big problems with digital ID often arise when they are integrated into essential services such as health care, social protection, and other forms of government services where the harmful effects of initial exclusion can quickly multiply. In Uganda where we carried out research, millions of people are still locked out of the digital ID system.”

Seasoned Rwandan Journalist Hudson Kuteesa, who has reported in the past about the planned ID project, shared his thoughts on how he thinks it will be of benefit to Rwandans.

As a reporter on the ground with daily newspaper The Times, Kuteesa also mentions some of the guarantees the government in Kigali has been giving to citizens about its approach in making the new digital ID project work for all categories of people.

The pros and cons notwithstanding, the panellists are unanimous that the opportunity cost of not having a digital ID far outweighs the risks, and that those implementing such systems must put in place the right guardrails at all possible levels.

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