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ID4Africa EC says Africa’s voice on identity now louder, more coherent

ID4Africa EC says Africa’s voice on identity now louder, more coherent

The Executive Chairman of ID4Africa, Dr. Joseph Atick, has lauded the smashing success of this year’s annual general meeting (AGM) of the movement, saying the continent’s voice on the future of identity came out stronger, louder and more coherent.

Atick made these remarks in an interview with Biometric Update at the end of the four-day event which took place from May 21-24 in Cape Town, South Africa.

In the extensive interview, he makes an appraisal of this year’s record-setting AGM, a synoptic overview of the 10 years of ID4Africa’s existence and its achievements, what it takes to curate the annual gathering of identity stakeholders, what to expect from the next edition in Ethiopia, as well as his thoughts on the future of legal and digital identity in Africa in the next five to ten years.

A successful Cape Town event

“You can look at this AGM from many different views, and every perspective you take, you will see something significant. You can look at it from the record that it set, but that could be misrepresenting if you look at only the numbers,” says Atick.

He notes that beyond the figures, the 2024 AGM was richer in terms of intangible things that took place, which were felt, even if not quantifiable.

“I’m talking about the exchanges that took place at many different levels. Exchanges between individual people, between groups of people, and the massive assembly of people. At each level of exchange, there was a flow of information, a better understanding of the challenges and the issues that we face, but also there was level-setting,” the ID4Africa Executive Chair mentions.

“It was clear that in this AGM, the voice of Africa on identity matters was very loud, clear and coherent to the point that the international community did not have the opportunity to prescribe.”

“I can say we made a breakthrough. Not only did we sort of harmonize the African approach and perspective, we also presented a view of what could possibly happen. What the AGM demonstrated is that when every voice is heard, more results can be obtained.”

Speaking on the new principle of “empowering every voice, every choice,” which the movement intends to focus on, the Atick says: “We lived that slogan in those four days of the AGM where we saw that it was not just governments, development agencies, or industry actors talking to each other. It was a community that had a balanced, inclusive and diverse representation.”

With many members of parliament and civil society actors attending for the first time, Atick says the diversity of voices is vital. “When the politicians came here, they did not speak politics. They spoke policy, which is different from politics.”

“For civil society, some thought they would come in to disrupt the sessions or the debates. They didn’t do any of that. In fact, they participated constructively. Everybody listened to each other and respected the opinions of each other.”

10 years of fighting invisibility

As Atick said at the start of the Cape Town AGM, ten years is not time enough to judge the progress recorded by ID4Africa. However, he says within this period, a great deal of evidence has emerged that their work has been producing important results.

One piece of evidence, he says, is the reduction of invisibility as many member countries of the movement have made major strides in legal and digital identity coverage.

“You can only look for evidence of progress but not judge progress. The evidence of progress is very much everywhere. One of the things is reducing invisibility. At the time when we started, the World Bank was reporting more than 1.5 billion people invisible. Today, the Bank would say less than 700 million. This does not include India,” says Atick.

He adds: “The bulk of it is in Africa. Progress is happening. Let’s take the example of Nigeria. When we started, Nigeria had less than 7 million people who had formal identification; today, it’s 107 million. Tanzania, where we did our first AGM in 2015, had less than 2 million [formally identifiable] people at the time. Today, 28 million people are in the formal identification programs. The reduction of invisibility has happened across every single country over these years.”

As the ID numbers increase, so do their use cases, according to Atick. “Many of these African countries have now enabled more use cases, and have added digital identities on top of their formal identity systems.”

“Almost everyone that has succeeded in building large enough databases like Nigeria and Kenya are also building mobile apps that allow their people virtual methods to carry their identity on a mobile device and present it for access to services. For example, financial inclusion has been boosted by the fact that we have digital identity.”

Also, ID4Africa has become a community that has a voice. “The most important achievement that this movement has accomplished over the last ten years is the community that we built together. It is a community which has a voice, a culture, a day, institutions for knowledge exchange, is orderly, and one that runs not on chaos but on harmony and respect for each other,” Atick mentions.

Other than efforts aimed at reducing invisibility, expanding use cases for digital identity, and diversifying the manifestation of identity, the ID4Africa movement has also helped in improving the understanding of how to govern digital identity and digital public infrastructure, according to Atick.

“Basically, there is an acceptance and a realization that digital identity, or identity in general, is a shared asset. When you talk about shared asset, you have to talk about how you manage that shared asset, else someone would abuse that shared asset. So, we need governance to properly manage shared assets,” he says.

“Also, we have started to see progress in understanding the harm that could happen if we don’t have guardrails. That is why I was very proud of our guardrails trilogy during this AGM. This is important in order to ensure that systems are responsive to the needs of the population, and that they can never be allowed to be hijacked, abused or harmed.”

What does it take to organize the ID4Africa AGM?

Atick laughed when I asked him this question, but he was quick to respond that it takes a medley of factors including passion, hard work and even diplomacy.

“This is not a job. Anyone who tries to do this as a job will fail. This is a mission in life and it’s a pleasure to make a contribution to humanity. I’m lucky that I am surrounded by like-minded people. So, we don’t do work, I can tell you,” says Atick.

“It is passion, and an incredible force of energy that we get that pushes us to not count the hours that we put into this. Trust me, the work for the next AGM has already started. We are brainstorming, comparing notes and listening to our hearts and listening to our community.”

Speaking specifically about the 2024 AGM, he notes: “An event like this which is not derailed is not an accident. Everyone has shown goodwill. There’s a lot behind the scenes, including diplomacy, that takes place to ensure that we get there. In life when something goes well, it’s not just pure luck. It is because there has been a lot of hard work, and hardworking people who had an alignment of their intentions.”

“I’m very proud of the staff of ID4Africa secretariat. They are wonderful people, but I’m also proud of the 124 men and women who represent their countries as ambassadors in the bureaus of ID4Africa. I can tell you that the credit belongs to all of them. We share the credit because every single one played a role.”

He also had kind words for Biometric Update for its constant support to the ID4Africa AGM through its extensive coverage over the years: “A big thank you to Biometric Update. You have accompanied us for many years. We truly appreciate the focus and the coverage that you have given to us and our community. The high-quality content is unparalleled.”

What to expect in Ethiopia next year

In twelve months’ time, ID4Africa 2025 AGM will be happening in Ethiopia, and it promises to be an even more interesting package, Atick hints.

He says while they will build on the successes of this year’s event in terms of topics discussed, the scope of the exchanges will also be broadened.

“We are going to go one step further to empower the voices that ultimately are the beneficiaries of identity. We have to do a bottom-up. We have to start with the use cases, the people who are using these cases. We have to understand the person-centric approach to identity, and to bring that through because if we have to succeed, the human element is not something that you can afford to make secondary.”

Interoperability is something that will also receive greater attention: “We want to build on the successes that we have achieved here. Clearly, the trilogy will continue to be a cornerstone, enriched in a different way. Obviously, the question of interoperability will need to also be at the heart and center of this because African aspirations are now becoming clearer regarding the need to bring down the barriers and bring down the borders of traveling across countries,” says Atick.

“Many are topics which are controversial but if we are honest in our intent, we should not shy away from approaching controversial topics. We had a number of controversial topics in this event, and we’ll continue to be the voice of truth and the voice that asks not to embarrass anyone but to find answers to problems that we face as a community.”

African needs collaboration, not charity

While there’s palpable progress as far as identity matters are concerned, the ID4Afirca Executive Chair believes there is still much ground that needs to be covered, and this can better be done if African countries are seen as equal partners.

“We should not underestimate the power of Africa because the future belongs to Africa,” he opines, and then adds: “So, don’t dictate to Africa, don’t tell them what they should do. Just give them their fair chance and let them demonstrate their ability. Africa has a lot of constraints, but by alleviating these constraints in a way, we have demonstrated that Africa rises.”

He emphasizes: “We won’t allow anyone to prescribe to Africa. Africa can ask for help, but it can ask it within the context of a collaboration and not within the context of charity. Africa doesn’t need charity; it needs partnerships and those partners were here and Africa demonstrated that it has the sophistication to dictate what it needs and to be treated as an equal partner in a discussion.”

‘The ID problem in Africa will be solved in my lifetime’

Going forward, Atick expresses a lot of optimism about Africa’s identity journey and holds that the future is pretty bright given the interest and enthusiasm demonstrated across the board.

“I’m very optimistic. I’m very impressed with the engagement, passion, commitment and the fact that Africa doesn’t lack the know-how. This is not about technology. This is about people. If we can coordinate and harmonize. I’m very optimistic that the identity problem in Africa will be solved in my lifetime,” he says emphatically.

“It’s not going to be another 30 years. It will be a lot shorter than that. But we are not waiting for the end results before people can reap the benefits. Already, people can do things that a year ago, they could not do. You can get your identity much faster than before. You can get access to services from the convenience of your phone. So, I agree that we have a lot to do, but we are already seeing the fruits.”

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