As a person whose academic research interests revolve around issues to do with identification systems, privacy and surveillance, I find the recent emphasis of the Ghanaian government on building identification systems very needful. Many of the pronouncements by the Vice- President, Dr Mahamadu Bawumia, with regard to the said pursuit bring to mind James C. Scott’s book, “Seeing like a State” (1998).

Scott for example, draws the reader’s attention to the important question; what is the origin of surnames? After all, no matter one’s position on what counts as the definitive history of man, it is hard to point out characters who had surnames, at least, in a similar context as they are used today; Adam, Eve, Socrates, Plato etc.

Scott skilfully explains the origins of surnames as a crucial part of the early state-making exercise. If states could assert their authority, they had to know who was who, within their territories. Thus surnames were required to enable the state to perform functions such as the collection of taxes and to determine who was ready for conscription.

Adding fixes like ‘-son’, ‘Mc’, and ‘Mac’– meaning ‘the son of’ – as well as tying people to their occupations – e.g. Taylor, Mason, Hunter and Smith – were interesting ways of going about this. Other “legibility” projects included the imposition of an official language, architectural reconstruction and the mapping out of geographic zones.

Poor legibility

Fast-forward to 2017, and in many African countries, the society is poorly legible to the state. There is often the indiscriminate siting of buildings; many houses are not numbered; roads and streets are either unnamed or their names widely unknown or unused; and many businesses, births and deaths are not registered.

Often, the first time that a person really gets to be formally known to the state is when he/she turns 18 and is registering to vote. If one needed a passport before that, then the person might be known formally to the state earlier.

In recent years, Ghana’s National Health Insurance programme has also presented an opportunity for citizens to get into the formal books of the state early. The caveat here is that despite the existence of these various avenues for the state to know its citizens – no matter how late it often is – there is still not a convincing sense that the state does have the needed legibility of the Ghanaian society.

It is on the back of this challenge that the present government’s relatively high commitment to improve identification systems is very welcome – street naming exercises, completing the national identification project etc. If the Ghanaian state cannot see the society, it affects its capacity to properly govern and assert its authority where there is the need.

As government agencies do need accurate data to make policies and even to collect taxes, one could argue that our governments and our society generally, have been hamstrung for decades in our pursuit of socio-economic development because for all these years, the accuracy and comprehensiveness of a key resource such as demographic data – especially of who is a Ghanaian, and who is doing what business in Ghana and where – have been limited.

Making legible

The state’s project of making society legible has positive implications also for the micro level. If the state could now better protect private property rights, broaden the tax base and also more accurately apportion welfare payables, citizens will benefit.

In many developed countries, businesses that make use of postage, delivery and GPS services are highly feasible and viable because the address systems in these countries work. These are multi-million dollar industries that naturally require the foundation of a legible society to better function. We can also take the example of banking, if customers default on loans and banks cannot track them down, it in turn, deepens the difficulty that comes with securing a bank loan in Ghana, thus adversely affecting business investments and general productivity.

Similarly, if the state poorly knows who works where, our tax kitty will be smaller. In short, it is important for developing states to lay foundations that allow their societies to become more legible. This comes with increased private sector jobs, an expanded tax base, improved loan systems and better welfare distribution. With such potential positive implications for socio-economic development, the government of Ghana must be encouraged in its pursuit of a more legible society.

Seeing like a state

However, there is a thin line between seeking legibility, and breaching privacy rights and also between using data for development, and for socio-relational discrimination.
Citizens cannot blindly trust the state with information about themselves.

Thus we will need civil society organisations to start paying more attention to issues relating to state and even non-state identification systems and the associated surveillance practices they come with and their implications for privacy rights and social discrimination.

If we can manage the potential pitfalls that come with strengthening ID systems, we can make very substantive gains development-wise. Thus à la James Scott, it is time the Ghanaian state started “seeing like a state.”