Digital ID & Interoperability experts agree on harmonizing digital identity systems
A Digital ID & Interoperability for Africa Regional Consultative Workshop held from June 6th to 8th in Banjul, Gambia concluded with a series of insightful discussions and recommendations aimed at realizing interoperability for Digital IDs and payment systems in Africa. Convened by The Gambia’s Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the workshop brought together government officials, policymakers, experts, and stakeholders to address the challenges and opportunities associated with digital ID development and management, with a particular focus on achieving interoperability.
“We are looking at the socio-economic implications of digital identity, emphasizing the need to harmonize our legal and technical regulations to foster cross-border data protection, financial inclusion, and cybersecurity,” said Mactar Seck, Chief of Technology and Innovation Section at the ECA. “Through national case studies and situation studies, this regional consultative process aims to gather insights on technical and regulatory gaps to better identify opportunities for cross-border harmonization.”
According to the World Bank Group’s 2018 ID4D Global Dataset, an estimated one billion people worldwide, including 470 million in Africa, face challenges in proving their identity These challenges have significant socio-economic implications, hindering access to essential services and financial inclusion.
In his remarks, Osman Bah, from The Gambia’s Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy said.”…Digital ID is among the top priorities within our Ministry’s digital transformation agenda, to enhance security, confidence, and interoperability for cross-border payments.”
For her part, Aissata De, UNDP Resident Representative in The Gambia, lauded the encouraging progress being made in the country’s Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) initiative ‘’…to improve population statistics, reduce statelessness, and enhance social protection’’.
Case Studies were presented by representatives of seven African countries, showcasing their ongoing efforts in implementing digital ID systems and providing recommendations to strengthen regulatory frameworks. The workshop stressed the urgency of addressing these gaps and emphasized the importance of harmonizing legal and technical regulations to foster cross-border data protection, financial inclusion, and cybersecurity.
The workshop concluded with several key recommendations to advance digital ID and interoperability in Africa. These recommendations, derived from insightful discussions among Member State representatives from Ministries of Interior, immigration affairs, Data Protection Commissions, National ID programs and cybersecurity experts among others, raised key challenges and opportunities associated with digital ID development and interoperability.
Policy and Legal Frameworks
Participants emphasized the gaps in a comprehensive African-wide digital identity (DI) and interoperability framework, as well as the absence of regulatory measures for cross-border enforcement. “DID is not considered a public good, resulting in insufficient attention from top leadership,” said a participant from the public service sector. “To build confidence and trust in the DI and interoperability program, it is essential to establish a legal instrument that designates an authority responsible for implementing regulatory frameworks prioritizing data protection, privacy, and security.” Furthermore, the need to integrate government and private sector identity systems into a comprehensive framework was highlighted to ensure access to digital ID systems, establish connections with national authorities, and standardize the legal framework for interoperability.
The workshop explored the nexus between cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), and digital ID systems in Africa. Participants recognized the need to strengthen multi-stakeholder collaboration in these areas to encourage capacity building initiatives and research to enhance digital ID, cybersecurity, and AI in Africa. Research conducted by ECA has shown that robust cybersecurity directly supports economic development, as there is a significant relationship between cybersecurity maturity and GDP (C4DAfrica, 2022). Capitalizing on already existing declarations such as the Lomé Declaration on cybersecurity (ECA 2022) and ECA’s Guideline for a Model Law on Cybersecurity (ECA 2022) were noted as progressive steps to articulate continental legal and policy guideline.
The Human Rights Dimension
The workshop recognized the importance of considering the human rights dimension of digital ID. Experts emphasized the need to develop a human rights-based national data protection strategy that ensures inclusive access to digital ID systems. Strategies should address the challenges faced by marginalized communities, including women, people with disabilities, and those in regions with limited-service delivery and power outage issues. To achieve digital ID outreach, existing social structures in Africa, such as village leaders and informal organizations, should be utilized. Further research was recommended to quantify the relationship between digital ID and socio-economic development in Africa.
The fundamental definition of digital ID and its contextual application is key in providing [common frame of understanding technical and regulatory terms]. By framing digital ID as ‘…a legally verifiable and universally accessible identity,’ participants noted the need to broaden the conversation on digital ID by considering its wider implications in human rights and access to vital social services.
Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS)
Institutional alignment and collaboration between national identity and civil registration institutions were among the key topics discussed. Participants recognized the importance of governments showcasing increased commitment to civil registration by allocating more domestic resources for digitalization, automation of systems, and infrastructure development. The linkage of the ID and civil registration systems necessitates both institutions engaging in discussions on interoperability and establishing modalities and agreements for data sharing. This is especially crucial in countries where the two institutions are housed in different ministries. It requires additional effort to establish an overarching law on system integration and harmonization of mandates.
The significant role of advocacy was also emphasized, urging decision makers at the highest level to reconsider resource allocation strategies. Fundraising efforts should be targeted and deliberate, aiming to identify new and effective strategies, particularly through public-private partnerships. Furthermore, as technology advances during systems deployment, regional standards are essential to facilitate integration, intercountry trade, and collaboration.
Inclusive Payment Systems
The workshop highlighted the necessity of ensuring interoperability of digital ID systems across countries in Africa while emphasizing the importance of localizing payment instruments to facilitate inclusion. ‘Digital ID plays a crucial role in identity verification, particularly in Know Your Customer (KYC) processes’. Argues a technical expert on Digital Payments. ‘By establishing digital IDs, we foster trust within the system, effectively preventing fraudulent activities such as money laundering and terrorism financing. This ensures the integrity and security of digital payments’.
Experts further noted that harmonization and standardization of policies and technologies are necessary to ensure that digital payments systems are compatible. Hence, governments should collaborate more and adopt interoperable frameworks aligned with regional aspirations such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Contextualizing solutions based on local needs and aligning them with regional expectations will further enhance the effectiveness of digital ID and interoperability initiatives in Africa.
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