Taking Pragmatic Steps to Advance National ID Efforts for Development

While the world watched one inauguration on January 20th, over 5,000 miles away, another incoming President, Nana Akufo-Addo, delivered his address at his inauguration in Ghana a few days earlier. One of the key promises that President Akufo-Addo has made is to reform the current national identification system started under his predecessor in 2003. Why such a priority? Because the President indicates that national identification will be good for the country’s development. If implemented fully, the national ID would allow efficient delivery of over 20 essential services to the country’s residents, verified by biometrics and linked with national ID. But as the new Ghanaian President noted in a December speech, there have been prior challenges in the implementation of national ID, as multiple agencies rolled out parallel identification systems across the country.

Ghana is hardly alone in its experience in rolling out national identification. As countries around the world, over many years, roll-out different types of identification schemes for national health systems, safety nets and beyond, we have seen these challenges first hand. The truth is that rolling out a national-level identification scheme can be costly, a sizeable undertaking and complex, while requiring safeguards for privacy and security concerns. Even more challenging sometimes are the efforts to harmonize and align the country’s multiple existing or in-process identification programs, already funded by multiple agencies, many of whom are mandated to register citizens but unclear about changing their business processes to integrate with a national ID or another identification system. Debates continue today if an official identifier is the right approach for inter-linkages, and how to ensure that citizen rights are protected in such systems.

National identification systems are the core building blocks for an effective and efficient provisioning of national-level services. Current and emerging technology like distributed hosting, authentication protocols and blockchain offer important opportunities to mitigate risk. India’s Aadhaar system proves that a system which offers a biometrically secure unique identifier can enable a range of services for the underserved consumer, including vital financial and health services, in a more integrated platform that seamlessly links together its citizens. But where, besides India and Pakistan, do we look for a roadmap for how to do these well, and does it make sense to have such sophisticated systems for all countries? Should we guide countries towards a more sequenced approach? Where are the emerging country examples we need to learn from, particularly on integration of a national ID across multiple ministries? How do we guard against the legitimate privacy and security concerns that stem from these integrated approaches?

Recognizing the need for a roadmap, a group of over 15 public and private sector organizations came together last fall under the leadership of the World Bank to develop a set of principles or heuristics that should be considered when developing new ID4D systems. Launching this week, these Principles are an important step towards developing a common vision on appropriate accessibility, design, and governance guidelines of identification systems, as well as a shared view on how these systems should—and should not—be used to support development and the achievement of multiple SDGs.

In addition to this important work, GSMA, Omidyar, USAID and other stakeholders are investigating how they can support ID efforts. The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is partnering with the World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative to help document how a few countries are implementing ID efforts, drawing the common lessons across them and developing specific examples of the steps countries are taking to develop national level frameworks so that other countries can learn from questions that others have faced.

For example, in Asia, India, Pakistan, Thailand and Indonesia offer important lessons on the challenges of introducing new systems and integrating legacy ones, particularly in large, disperse geographies facing strong security concerns. Similar challenges affect many on the African sub-continent and they have looked to their Asian neighbors at times for guidance and increasingly to their own lessons. In Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya have been working on national ID plans for a decade. These leaders and many more will be present at the annual ID4 Africa Conference being held in Namibia this April.  Convened by African leaders of the ID for Africa movement, the conference brings together those working to establish legal identity for all people in Africa to ensure that social and economic benefits can be shared evenly.

We recently had the chance to catch up with Dr. Jabiri Bakari, CEO of the eGovernance Authority (eGA) of Tanzania, on ID efforts in Tanzania. The National Identification Authority (NIDA) is currently focused on providing national IDs to adult citizens, residents and refugees by June this year, while the Registration, Insolvency and Trusteeship Agency (RITA) focuses on the registration of children’s’ births. eGA’s work is focused on setting the overall eGovernance framework for the state and ensuring that his colleagues efforts are well integrated across new national level systems being rolled out by either the state or implementing partners.

In addition to the principles launched today, we believe that learning from these identity leaders on challenges faced and their approach to overcoming them is important. Understanding what aspects they wish they had known about, to avoid before they started, will help all of us take pragmatic steps to incorporate national identifier considerations into any app and service, deployed anywhere in the world.

Claudine Lim

Manager at The Principles for Digital Development

Claudine first joined the Digital Impact Alliance in October 2017, shortly after receiving a dual masters in international relations and public relations from the Maxwell School and S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University. After working as a Program Coordinator and Researcher for DIAL’s Business Operations, she is currently working with the Principles of Digital Development.