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Advancing interoperability in Africa: Overcoming challenges for digital integration

Infrastructure challenges a hinderance, experts warn at ID4Africa
Advancing interoperability in Africa: Overcoming challenges for digital integration

In a session about interoperability of identity data and systems at this year’s ID4Africa conference, Dr. Victor Amadi, a research fellow at the Center for Comparative Law in Africa within the University of Cape Town, South Africa, pins Africa’s challenges with infrastructure, unreliable electricity and high energy costs as a key factor that can hinder the deployment and maintenance of digital systems.

Amadi, who has been studying cross-border issues and migration, said at ID4Africa 2024 that integrating new digital identity systems with existing frameworks at the regional level presents another layer of complexity. For instance, within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC), initiatives like the ECOWAS biometric ID card and the East African e-passport must interact with national systems. The key question is whether these new systems will complement or phase out existing ones.

Legal framework and data protection

From a legal perspective, Mihret Woodmatas, senior ICT expert, department of infrastructure and energy, African Union Commission (AUC), points out that differing levels of development across countries pose a challenge. A significant issue is the lack of robust legal frameworks for data protection and privacy. However, some countries have made strides in this area, offering models that others can emulate. Aligning the legal frameworks of all 55 African Union (AU) member states is a monumental task, but it’s crucial for ensuring interoperability and protecting personal data.

Bridging the gap between refugee and national ID systems

In the session, Andrew Hopkins, chief, digital identity and registration section at UNHCR discusses the nuances of integrating refugee ID systems with national ID systems. The refugee status process, managed either by the UNHCR or national authorities, involves steps distinct from those for general citizenry. While interoperability between these systems is vital, it’s also important to maintain the integrity and purpose of each system. The ultimate goal is to ensure that individuals are uniquely identified across systems without compromising their rights or security.

As the continent strives for greater interoperability, the community’s collective efforts are crucial. The AU has developed several policy frameworks and conventions, such as the Malabo convention on cyber security and personal data protection, to guide member states. Capacity building, especially in infrastructure, is essential. Supporting connectivity in rural areas and ensuring sustainable implementation of digital solutions are critical steps.

From a research perspective, Amadi emphasizes the importance of championing a collective standard for interoperability. Engaging stakeholders at the grassroots level and advocating for national policies are vital. Additionally, research on topics like migration governance can provide valuable insights and drive informed decision-making.

Encouraging data sharing with caution

Hopkins underscores the importance of sharing data to benefit those it is collected for, particularly refugees. While sharing data comes with risks, particularly concerning security and privacy, these can be managed with proper risk treatments. The goal is to avoid siloed data systems and instead foster coordination and cooperation among different entities.

Hopkins discussed the digital transformation across states and international agencies, emphasizing the need for effective data sharing. Good data sharing practices enable various entities to provide coordinated services, significantly benefiting refugees by facilitating their access to education, healthcare, and employment.

Interoperability also supports local communities economically and ensures a unique and continuous identity for refugees, even if they remain displaced for years or decades. It enhances security by preventing multiple identities across systems, crucial for maintaining the integrity of service delivery.

The Ethiopian case: A model for inclusive digital ID

The Ethiopian government recently launched its national digital ID initiative, extending its benefits to refugees residing within the country. The development allows refugees access to essential services such as healthcare, education, SIM cards, financial services, and business engagements. To date, over 3,000 refugees have already received their digital IDs, with plans to extend this initiative nationwide.

Moderator Gail Hodges, executive director, OpenID Foundation, highlights the transformative potential of this initiative, framing it as a practical embodiment of the Global Refugee Compact. It aligns with Ethiopia’s commitment, made during the Global Refugee Forum, to integrate refugees into national systems and enhance their access to documentation.

The successful inclusion of vulnerable people in Ethiopia is mirrored in other countries like Uganda and Kenya. In Uganda, biometric verification systems were introduced to tackle fraud in documentation issuance, enabling 600,000 refugees to access cellular services and mobile money. In Kenya, a partnership with the World Food Programme used biometric checks to ensure food aid distribution efficiency.

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