Africa – Identity in Diversity – the opportunity and the challenge

By Sanjay Dharwadker – WCC smart search & match


“We play this tune for you, Hammadi son of Amadu Mannga and Sammbo Mannga and Saalu Mannga and Booyi Mannga and Amnatu Mannga and Kumboldi Mannga and Jeyneba Mannga…” – Hassan Sango, griot, Burkina Faso.

The griot of West African tradition is a living archive; an oral historian and troubadour who has the births and deaths of generations memorized. Even today we can still witness the ritual of reciting the names of generations of ancestors. And yet, Africa has abysmal birth registration rates: 32% on average, with some countries coming in as low as 3%. This means that every year over 15 million children are born in Africa with no birth records.

Just four examples serve to demonstrate the immense diversity of the African identity situation:

1. A country that records identities on millions of manually typed index cards with different colors for different races.

2. A country in which over 16,000 local offices issue ID cards, each with a different format and content, decorated with pictures of local flowers and animals.

3. A country with an unsustainable currency and decades of single-person rule that despite all maintains immaculate birth and civil registration records.

4. A country with an ID system that is the envy of many advanced nations: multiple biometrics, secure polycarbonate contactless chip cards, web and mobile citizen services.

In part, this diversity stems from the differences in colonial administrative practices. Some states kept meticulous race records in line with national boundaries, while others used a less comprehensive approach. This caused many to struggle with nationality issues, resulting in violence and often even genocide.

Now, spurred by UN Strategic Development Goal 16.9 – legal identity for all with birth registration by 2030 – there is a renewed call to better estimate populations, record births and deaths, and keep sufficient evidence of the identities of the living. But Africa faces more unknowns and challenges than ever. In the last two decades, many approaches have been tried – both big-bang and phased, hi-tech and lo-tech – often with limited or temporary success. This cast grave doubts on the sustainability of identity programs in Africa. So why do they keep failing, and how can we minimize risks in the future?

The Challenges
Some key factors in the failure of African identity programs are outside the scope of technology, such as the absence of a statutory framework and a lack of resources. While much remains to be done, more and more African countries have laws enacted around legal identity. Besides, the success of programs like Aadhaar in India shows that a legal framework need not be a prerequisite: it can evolve as and when the identity programs do. As for resources, the aforementioned UN SDG will likely boost funding for identity programs. However, this funding is expected to be in the form of interest-bearing loans, and conditional on demonstrable likelihood of sustainability. Thus, the decision-making around such programs will be increasingly businesslike and linked to economic viability. It is vital that this does not cause us to lose sight of developmental goals such as health, education, welfare, gender equality, financial inclusion, social security, and specific to Africa, establishment of lasting and fair democracy.

Technologically, the first and most critical challenge is that newer systems must factor in existing ones, which evolved for various purposes such as health, welfare, or electoral rolls. The prevailing view is that countries will continue to have multiple functional programs, but these could be supported by a foundational identity program, as in India’s Aadhaar program. This would serve two important purposes. First, separating the questions of identification and eligibility, and second, aligning these with the respective administrative entities. Such an approach, akin to the separation of powers in modern nation-states, is more likely to lead to a strong and sustained national identity system.

A second challenge is the need for a comprehensive view of what constitutes “legal identity” or citizenship. This is a function of locations and dates, not just of legislation and registration. Changes in national boundaries (e.g. decolonization, break-up, and reunification of states) have a direct bearing on the identities of the inhabitants. In recent years, scholars have put together valuable information, interpretations and views on citizenship for almost every country in the world, and such knowledge can help strengthen national identity systems.

Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) are an integral part of any identity meta-system. A comprehensive system should include inputs and outputs like the census count, a population model, demographics, health indicators, register of legal status (married, widowed, divorced, adopted, etc.) and most importantly, a traceable and durable record of births and deaths. Such a system can offer information of great value: verifiable statistics on population coverage and births, and more specifically their registration and certification. Although often taken for granted in developed countries, these are absent or still nascent in many developing countries. This absence not only hinders economic development, but also underlies global security concerns, thus triggering an urgency to address them.

In recent years, information technology has played both ways in Africa – facilitating citizenship records for millions of individuals on the one hand, yet on the other, enabling citizenship records to be skewed in a way that human lives are jeopardized at the click of a mouse. This double-edged sword has been the topic of much discussion and research, all of which is obviously taken into consideration when funding decisions are made. Elections in Africa cost nearly four times the world average, and at the same time, are neither significantly more fair, nor less prone to manipulation. This could affect funding both in the short and long term.

Does this mean that there is no faith or confidence in information technology for identity programs? Not necessarily, but there are hard questions that the industry needs to answer, and in some ways be accountable for. Some important ones are: how are massive stand-alone systems like biometrics and CRVS to be brought together? How can we synchronize foundational and functional identity systems and at the same time ensure their essential separation? What happens when biometric elements of an identity meet non-biometric elements, which is a plausible scenario under existing and emerging data privacy laws? But perhaps more important than anything else: how do we ensure the continuity and permanence of identity records? After all, frequent obsolescence, need for upgrades, and loss of legacy data are commonplace in current IT implementations for identity systems, especially in many electoral systems in Africa.

The Opportunities
Search and match technology can address many of the critical challenges Africa faces in the context of national identity. This offers versatile biographic matching as well as combining biographic with biometric and contextual data, leveraging the latest fusion techniques.

Given the challenge of navigating multiple functional identity programs, a federated search component is also essential. This should enable easy searching and matching across remote, distributed, and disparate databases. Multiple interfaces can be built to ensure both the flow of information wherever required, and the separation of data that might be dictated by overriding privacy concerns. In other words, the software should help protect individual freedom and data security while supporting the smooth functioning of government institutions. Such Identity Platforms can be implemented as part of existing or upcoming identity programs but then be used in a broad national capability for identity resolution, linking, and other identity search needs, and can be integrated with various functional systems, such as welfare, pensions, and social security.

Identity systems inevitably deal with extremely large lists and databases. The software should be able to search these rapidly and unfazed by spelling, phonetic, semantic, and other variations. It is even better to have multi-cultural name matching capability, and the ability to scan across different script systems. The Identity Platform should go beyond binary match/no-match outcomes to multiple possible matches ranked by relevance, a feature that can help empower individuals and even result in saving lives. A powerful Adjudication module helps eliminate ambiguities and duplicates through manual as well as programmed capabilities, while well-integrated rules engines bridge foundational identity systems with functional ones. Its feature Insight can be customized for interfacing with CRVS, providing policy-makers and administrators with appropriate overviews.

With the increasingly widespread deployment of biometrics and secure identity documents, the areas of high risk have moved to enrolment and registration, and especially geared to combat fraud in these areas. As a final note of interest, identity systems in Africa are expected to ride the success of the mobile telephony networks that have far outstripped any other means of reaching individuals in remote corners of the continent. This mode should also be comfortably supported by the Identity Platform.

Let’s look back at the four examples of the diversity of African identity systems. Any system should be able to take on the challenges at either end of the scale. In advanced and modern systems, solutions should help optimize operational efficiency through meaningful, transparent, and fast matching. But even confronted with a system comprising 16,000 disparate databases, it should be up to the challenge. The next time someone steps forward to remember the names of seven generations of ancestors, let’s be ready. Serving citizens through smart national identity services is a decisive step towards a better tomorrow.


Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: