By Maina Waruru

There are an estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide who cannot officially prove their identity, according to the World Bank. Just under half of those people – approximately 500 million – are estimated to live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Economic Forum, and by going about their daily business without proof of identity, these ‘identityless’ millions are missing out on basic legal, social and economic rights and opportunities.

Of the 1.1 billion people without ID, four out of ten are young people below the age of 18, while one out of six are infants below the age of five.

And there is a gender dimension to the problem, too. In at least 62 countries, according to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) data cited in a 2017 GSMA report on the identity gender gap, girls are less likely than boys to be registered at birth, while the highest gender gap in birth registration is found in Somalia where 97 per cent of children are unregistered and girls are 18 per cent more likely to be unregistered than boys.

As adults, gender and income level have a significant impact on whether a person has identity documents. In Uganda for example, a 2014 study cited by GSMA showed that only 63 per cent of women have any form of ID compared to 83 per cent of men. And in many countries women still face legal and institutional barriers to obtaining formal identity documents. For example, in countries like Algeria, Benin and Mauritius, married women are required to produce a marriage certificate when applying for a national identity card. Married men do not.

In Africa, conflict – and the displacement that follows – also plays a huge part in the large number of “invisible” people without official ID.

“When people flee, they leave their belongings behind and that includes identification documents,” says Wanja Munaita, an assistant protection officer for stateless people at United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Nairobi.

“In their country of asylum, the displaced arrive confused, hungry, sick and frightened. It is a matter of survival for many and so documentation is not the first thing on their minds,” she tells Equal Times.

Moreover, she notes, the governments of host countries for refugees do not necessary issue identity documents, but instead provide temporary documents which need to be renewed every so often. Governments need to consider “more permanent solutions” to those currently living without official ID, Munaita suggests.

Living in the shadows

As well as being unable to prove their very existence, people without ID documents are forced to live in the shadows in a myriad of ways. They cannot access basic services such as health care or education; they cannot participate in formal economic activities in the country in which they live, nor do they enjoy fundamental rights such as voting or access to justice. In short, they cannot engage in society on a “normal basis,” according to Munaita.

International multilateral agencies have realised the need to make sure that every human has official identity documents. As a result, “legal identity for all, including birth registration” by the year 2030 is a fundamental target of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Furthermore, in 2014, under the leadership of the World Bank, the Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative was launched, to push for the attainment of the universal registration of all people.

Africa currently has the lowest number of people with some form of formal identification, with 23 countries in the region pushing programmes to issue national IDs to their populations, says Professor Benno Ndulu, ex-Tanzania Central Bank governor and member of the ID4D High Level Advisory Council.

Currently, birth registration in sub-Saharan Africa stands at below 50 per cent. By comparison, central and eastern Europe has a coverage rate of 98 per cent.

The low and disjointed coverage in the issuance of ID papers in Africa is partly due to high costs and multiple forms of ID, according to Professor Ndulu. In Nigeria, for example, the cost of a single form of ID is estimated at US$5 per person compared to the unique single ID issued in India, which costs less than US$1 per individual.

“Issuing IDs for a variety of purposes, rather issuing an integrated ID to serve multipurpose functions or a single unique ID that can be linked to a system of other functional IDs, will help keep costs down,” he notes, adding that multiple-purpose ID systems – a birth certificate for infants, an ID card at 18 years and a passport when one wants to travel, for example – is one reason for that high cost.

Governments, he says, should make use of new digital technology and pursue continuous registration of newborns to cut costs, and to make registration systems more sustainable.

“Governments that are pursuing smart solutions are likely to put in place sustainable, cost- effective ID systems,” Ndulu points out, noting that the use of digital technology, combined with integrated ID systems that avoid duplication of costs significantly reduces the financial burden of issuing ID.

That aside, the question of privacy of personal data used in identifying people and the need to be protected has been identified as a major challenge in getting people registered.

In Africa, only 21 countries have either enacted laws on cyber security and the protection of personal data, according to Ndulu, a situation that he says “internationalises” the challenge.

Countries on the continent, he says, need to assent to the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, in additional to enacting national laws for the protection of data privacy to help overcome the challenge.

Overall, Ndulu says that a combination of advocacy, the application of cost-effective systems, the enactment of laws to protect data, the registration of all children at birth and the subsequent updating of biometric data as these children grow up, combined with the use of digital technology, would leapfrog the attainment of universal identification in Africa.