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'Smart identity requires a rapid, practical tech approach'

'Smart identity requires a rapid, practical tech approach'.

There is a growing recognition across Africa of the foundational role that secure identity plays in creating sustainable, inclusive societies. Speakers at the recent ID4Africa Summit in Rwanda emphasised this idea, and argued forcefully for a more practical and realistic approach to creating national identity systems rapidly.

"Governments realise that a secure identity is a prerequisite for building modern states, and empowering citizens both economically and politically, but there is now a growing sense that more practical, rapid solutions need to be found," says Hennie Meeding, Head of E-Government Solutions at Bytes Systems Integration.

Meeding, part of Bytes' team at ID4Africa, believes that one contributing factor to the growing emphasis on identity is the fact that providing legal identity for all, including birth registration, is one of the targets of the United Nations' Transforming Our World—the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

One of the Agenda's 16 goals is to "Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels". Legal identity is recognised as one of the targets that must be achieved to make this goal a reality.

Perhaps more important, Meeding continues, is the growing chorus of voices arguing for a different approach to providing legal identity. One point is the fact that voter registration and enrolment onto the national identity database cannot be treated as separate. Donor organisations simply do not have the resources to fund voter enrolment every time an election comes round.

At the same time, too many governments are trying to implement highly sophisticated citizen enrolment programmes. Such programmes are very slow and expensive to roll out—and are often of limited value as the infrastructure to use them is absent elsewhere in the system; for example, when claiming pensions or social grants.

"Many are now arguing that rapid mass voter enrolments, such as undertaken by the National Electoral Commission of Tanzania in 2014-15, should be used as the basis for issuing basic, free legal identity cards to as many citizens as possible," Meeding explains. "Around 80 percent of the costs are related to enrolment in the field—copying documents, taking fingerprints and photos, and so on. This would now only need to be done once."

Meeding says that some speakers argued that citizen enrolment was too slow because it was too thorough and manual. He believes that a combination of streamlined business processes and appropriate technology would solve the challenge. Another proposal would be to be more flexible about the supporting information at enrolment—given that many people do not have birth certificates, it should be possible to enrol them on the basis of validation by community leaders and elders.

Once the bulk of the population has basic identity cards and their biometric information is captured, it would be relatively easy and inexpensive to issue smart identity cards as and when the supporting framework was in place.

"One thing is clear: in order to help Africa overcome the challenge of providing secure legal identities for millions of its people, service providers will need to come up with innovative approaches that combine appropriate technology with in-depth understanding of the conditions on the ground," he concludes.

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