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How Trust Frameworks are Helping to Implement Digital ID Ecosystems Across the Continent of Africa

  • Explainer
  • By Rebecca Leitch (Good ID)
  • 16 December 2020

In this second article examining trust frameworks, Rebecca Leitch looks at how they are paving the way for crucial economic progress and inclusion across African nations

As we saw in part one, trust frameworks enable public and private sectors to work together to build better digital identity systems.  

In Africa, one of the biggest incentives for using trust frameworks is to build interoperable digital systems that will enable economic development. 

COVID-19 has exposed a lack of infrastructure in some regions, but also provided a much-needed stimulus and opportunity to accelerate the adoption of online technologies.

Many governments across the continent are now pushing for digital infrastructure which will help them to communicate with the hardest-to-reach people, in the hardest-to-reach areas, improve the spread of crucial information, as well as strengthen trading links and increase economic growth.

Africa's population is set to increase from 1.3 billion now to 2.5 billion in 2050, and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was set up to ensure the economy grows too in order to cope, while the Digital Economy Initiative for Africa (DE4A), adopted by the African Union in February 2020, aims to ensure that every individual, business, and government in Africa will be digitally enabled by 2030.

Ensuring in-country, as well as cross-country trade, in which organizations and end users are able to make and receive a payment or track their goods all over the continent, will therefore be essential. 

But this is an extremely complex challenge, as Tunde Fafunwa, Lead Advisor at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, (ECA) explains:

“An identity is required now for basic things, like registering for a mobile phone sim or online payment system, however almost 500 million Africans don't have any official identification that can be used to access services, and participate in the economy.

“The importance of having a foundational ID that involves minimal data collection and focuses on identity first, is therefore extremely important. 

“And if you're going to be part of the AfCFTA, which is a powerful integrating mechanism, everybody needs to agree on what the essential elements for trust are, and what will be acceptable by the other parties. 

“The ECA, along with many other organizations, including UNICEF, the African Development Bank, and Omidyar Network, promote the principles of identification - Good ID - whether it's for health, for citizenship, or commerce. But currently there are many people who don’t possess any official documents from which to generate an ID.

"Therefore, the different points of information that are available should be used to generate a foundational identification, which can then be built upon.  

“This is essential for inclusion, but it is a huge challenge.”

One step towards achieving this will be through the Pan African Trust Framework - a common, trusted, and shared approach to verifying identities. Fafunwa explains the important role this will play in the design of inclusive digital systems in future:

“Now is the right time, before countries have fully adopted a standard or rolled out an ID system, to understand the implication and align themselves more closely with The Pan African Trust Framework and the principles of interoperability.

“The ECA’s role is to try and help integrate and coordinate the framework, which contains a broad set of principles, standards, and rules. 

“It is similar to the EU’s eIDAS trust framework, but is less complex and more flexible. It contains multiple levels of trust, so if transactions are of lower value or lower risk, then the levels of assurance can also be lower. 

“It is really important that the conversations and the dialogue around this continues, and the momentum accelerates.”

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An ID in itself is not beneficial however - it is what it gives you access to. If governments are not providing adequate access to services or benefits, having an ID is not going to be seen as essential.

So how are citizens supposed to put their trust in a system when trust across the board is at an all-time low? 

Jessica Figueras, a tech strategist specializing in government and regulation, explains how instilling trust in digital identity for citizens ultimately depends on individual governments:

“We are definitely at a crucial moment in building digital trust. And this is only partly a technology issue. It's well documented that levels of overall trust in society have been declining for decades - particularly trust in governments, businesses, and the media, and now questions about how our personal data is treated adds to the list of concerns.

“We know that high trust facilitates business. So it makes sense that there’s a growing number of organizations that facilitate the digital trust economy - particularly in the identity space.

“An intention with trust frameworks is that they can allow for cross-border collaboration. This creates the interesting possibility that, in countries where people have low levels of trust - whether in government or businesses - they might actually have more trust in a service provided by an overseas organization.

“But most approaches to digital trust still need a lot of work when it comes to inclusion. And there's now a real push for that to be embedded in frameworks from the very beginning.”

The fact that many organizations on the African continent have signed up for strong governance frameworks, which are independent in terms of the ID issuing authority, and which cover the principles of good ID, are all steps in the right direction and a lot to feel positive about. 

Given governments have such a crucial role when it comes to instilling trust and encouraging mass adoption of digital ID systems, can trust frameworks help governments to step up to the plate and play by the rules? 

The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) aims to support the development of a Digital Single Market (DSM), which is the key driver for the Smart Africa Alliance - an alliance of African Heads of State and Government set up to accelerate sustainable socioeconomic development on the continent. Since it was formed in 2014, it has grown to include 31 African countries that represent 750+ million people.

Lacina Koné, CEO at Smart Africa, explains how its framework is helping to bring together all African countries in a shared vision based on trust:

“Trust and identity are both abstract concepts and have a different meaning and importance to the different actors, this is even more important in the context of supra-national initiatives.

"The Smart Africa Alliance is very aware of that and has therefore established the Smart Africa Working Group for Digital Identity which proposed the Smart Africa Trust Alliance (SATA) as a continental alliance, a “coalition of the willing” that can establish cross-border trust in identities between all actors, both public and private.

"SATA will therefore be a powerful force for systemic change across Africa, creating trust, alignment, and recognition of foundational and functional digital identity solutions to accelerate digital inclusion and realize a myriad of associated socioeconomic benefits.

“At SATA’s core will sit the Smart Africa Alliance Member States and their respective policy and decision makers, working in close collaboration with industry to establish a strong public-private partnership.

"Fulfilling a supervisory governance function, this ‘coalition of the willing’ will agree upon a sustainable framework of principles, procedures, and technical standards for building up trust among all parties, whilst always ensuring that the sovereign rules set by member states and their registration and identity issuing authorities remain respected.

“The inclusion of the private sector is imperative to accelerate inclusion, support general growth, and develop user friendly and effective channels. At the same time, the Smart Africa Alliance is committed to the highest standards of data privacy and protection, ensuring that trust is not lost at the last mile.

"Ultimately, this will enable persons, both natural and legal, to flexibly engage both socially and economically across the borders and jurisdictions of Smart Africa, reducing fraud and creating confidence in new opportunities for both domestic and transnational trade.”

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But achieving an inclusive, trusted digital ID system - which verifies everyone is who they say they are - won’t be possible until everyone can first prove they are who they say they are.

The fact remains that there is still a lot of work to do before there is a unified way to issue an ID, as Grace Mutung’u, Research Fellow at The Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT) wrote in a recent GoodID article:

Legal identity is a loaded space that requires a lot of negotiation and resolution of underlying issues. There are Africans who have never traveled outside the continent, but are not recognized as nationals of any state, or their belonging to a country is contested... They are therefore not invited to the digital identity table until questions on their nationality are resolved

Reaching the furthest behind first

One long-standing problem is the difference between what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a human.

Having an ID as a unique individual who can access the services needed in order to live is at the heart of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals objective, ‘Leaving No One Behind’ :

Recognizing that the dignity of the human person is fundamental, we wish to see the goals and targets met for all nations and peoples and for all segments of society. And we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first

Although trust frameworks go a long way to facilitate collaboration, and help improve inclusion and economic development through interoperability, they are not a silver bullet when it comes to an individual human’s rights, because once you move away from starting with a foundational digital identification, you are at risk of building an exclusive system, as Fafunwa argues:

“Most countries view identity as a citizenship issue. Almost by definition, it's not built to be inclusive, it's built to identify citizens versus non citizens. 

“In the case of Kenya, they accommodated the fact that legal residents are aliens and also have a route to be identified or registered.

“But in India with Aadhaar, the basis of this identification was simply that you are human, and you bring some sort of biometrics, usually fingerprints, to identify yourself as a unique individual. The data collection was minimal. 

“In Africa the reason why we have hundreds of millions of people without identification is because they don't have a birth certificate. So when you're asking people to identify themselves, you have to ask for a piece of paper from a local leader, a district government official, a civil servant, religious leader because there is no foundational document from which to generate an ID for many people.

“Anything other than a foundation ID is only for those who can prove that they’re citizens or legal residents."

This is why - Fafunwa contends - the work of Smart Africa, the ECA and its partner organizations, as well as the World Economic Forum, is so important. 

As Koné concludes: "Smart Africa is aiming to address the issues of exclusion by putting the concept of Levels of Assurance (LoAs) at its core. LoAs define the ability to determine, with some level of certainty or assurance, that a claim to a particular attribute made by a person, or entity, can be trusted.

"In this context, a legal identity is not always necessary, and in many cases, awareness of characteristics of a person are more important than knowing their ‘true’ identity. This is particularly relevant in social programs that can be lifesaving. SATA’s mission is therefore to be context-aware and needs-based, reducing friction where possible whilst remaining risk conscious."

As we have seen in these two articles, being context-aware, needs-based, reducing friction where possible, and remaining risk conscious are ultimately what trust frameworks are designed to do.

As long as putting the individual human needs first remains the bottom line for all trust frameworks - and when it comes to building digital ID systems, trust continues to runs through their center - then let us be hopeful that it is only a matter of time before we see that inclusion becomes their pinnacle.