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Why We Work in Digital ID

#GoodID Awards Community Champion, Grace Mutung’u, is a Research Fellow at CIPIT, Strathmore University

The digital ID movement generally views digital ID as a means of achieving sustainable development goal 16.9 - giving legal identity to every person by 2030.

Legal identity is a loaded space that requires a lot of negotiation and resolution of underlying issues. I work in digital ID policy in Kenya, together with a host of really well read, experienced, and great thinkers on these issues. I summarize some of the top issues on legal ID and digital ID.

First, legal identity means recognition by government of the existence of a person.

In African countries, colonial histories and post-colonial nation building projects influence who is viewed as a real native of the country.

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. These include border communities, internally displaced persons, refugees, as well as communities who have historically been far from government services. They are therefore not invited to the digital identity table until questions on their nationality are resolved.

The cross-jurisdictional nature of these problems requires a coordinated approach among countries, from spaces such as the regional economic communities or the African Union.

The digital ID community must therefore synergize with the identity and inclusion community if digital ID is to really achieve the goal of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Our work attempts to bring these two groups together.

Grace Mutung’u was voted runner-up in the #GoodID Awards accountability category

Second, recognition by the state translates to what a person receives from the state. However, digital ID has encouraged states to centralize personal data, putting vulnerable groups at risk of harm.

For example, people receiving social assistance in the form of drug addiction therapy or HIV/AIDS anti-retroviral treatment may want to keep this information private from national security databases to avoid criminalization. Our work therefore calls for nuanced considerations on the design of digital ID so that digital ID enhances the quality of life.

Third, the above problems show that ideas around digital ID and digital technologies in general are imported. There is a real potential for many aspects of digital ID - from the philosophy, to the actual technology, algorithms, storage, and uses - to be influenced by private international entities.

As a consequence, the country can easily become a net consumer of technology and - even more concerning - dependant on closed technologies. We therefore advocate for ownership of digital ID technology and, beyond that, inclusion of the local technology community in developing solutions to digital ID.

This award is therefore important in highlighting the problems with current narratives around digital ID as a magic wand that resolves all problems in managing African societies. It is not

Digital ID movements must coordinate with other movements that have done a lot of work in issues such as statelessness, human rights and development.

The award also shows the deep expertize among Africans who experience digitalization as part of their everyday lives. They have something to contribute to debates on how to achieve SDG 16.9.

Thank you for using the award to showcase their ideas.