As the train of digital ID programs makes its way to more European countries, differences in practice between these programs and similar programs in Africa and the Global South are emerging. For example, EU Digital ID policies are made in Europe and in cases such as the UK, there is wide consultation, not just about components of the system, but also on how to address issues that may arise once the technology is in place. In other countries, digital ID projects are implemented in phases.
Although the same policy actors have been involved in digital ID policies globally, they do not apply the same approaches in places like Africa. In many African countries, people are arguably coerced into enrolling for digital ID when governments make it mandatory to have digital ID in order to access public, and even private services, such as owning a mobile phone SIM card. For example, in a continent where there is high interest in politics, most biometric IDs in the last decade were introduced as part of voter registration.
In countries such as Kenya, many parents are racing against time to acquire birth certificates for their children to avoid their children being denied access to school. This is after the country’s Ministry of Education made it mandatory for learners to register onto their digital system in order to access learning or take national examinations. Regrettably, this policy was not accompanied by a similar directive to the Registrar of Births to ensure that all children, particularly those in rural and underserved areas, or orphaned and vulnerable children, were issued with birth certificates to enable them to register in the Ministry of Education system.
They must anticipate the impact of their decisions and have mechanisms to mitigate their impact. In addition, they must study how policy decisions affect the public and have the flexibility to change or even abandon digital ID decisions that are not suitable for their people.
But even as we engage with our policy makers on matters concerning digital ID, global policy makers also need to be held accountable for the effects of their decisions on people far removed from their reality. Take the example of advice for financing given to African countries to implement digital ID. Some of the advice goes as far as recommending the centralization of all identity services - in the process bringing services previously under social services into the realm of national security.
A study on digital ID in Uganda illustrates how securitization of national ID becomes a barrier to access to healthcare for vulnerable groups such as the elderly. Field research from Kenya also shows the gaps in managing COVID-19 cash transfers through national government officers, as opposed to community institutions such as local health workers or children officers.
They could be partly due to vendor-driven ID - where policies are adopted to suit vendor’s technology, as opposed to the needs of society. This means that technology providers should be held accountable for their role in digital ID programs. Do they design technology that serves the people and their common good? Is the technology made sustainably?
These are among the questions being asked by people who engage with digital ID - whether as users, researchers, or in solidarity with others. Fortunately, as novel as digital ID may be, accountability is an age-old question. There is therefore much to learn from those who asked the relevant questions before us.