Towards the Evaluation of Socio-digital ID Ecosystems in Africa: Comparative Analysis of Findings from Ten Country Case Studies

Efforts to establish or improve national identification systems in Africa have coincided with the increasing deployment of mobile technology. This has led to the prioritisation of digital “solutions” for facilitating forms of identification and registration – often via biometric attributes. With an estimated 500 million people in Africa living without any form of legal identification (birth certificate or national ID), digital identities have become increasingly popular because of their relative ease, low cost, and convenience compared to more analogue systems. For example, the African Union Commission (AUC) is currently developing a digital ID policy framework for the continent. This effort draws its mandate from the Digital Transformation Strategy (DTS) for Africa (2020-2030), which highlights both the social and economic potential of digital IDs for Africans. These implications are, if anything, underlined by COVID-19 and the ways in which the devastating pandemic has tended to increase the utility of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on the continent and beyond. Just like a pandemic can offer potentially compelling insights into socio-digital inequality, the state, and citizenship in Africa, digital identity ecosystems also proffer an interesting case study of development practices. Critical analyses of the impacts and outcomes of digital identity ecosystems are important because related programmes tend to create an inherent power imbalance between the State and its people (and sometimes third parties with the deployment of public-private partnerships) because of the personal data such interventions collect. This leaves residents with little ability to exert agency in its collection, storage and use. And while increasing access to legal identification might appear on the face of it to be positive development processes, this is not always the case. In addition to the very real challenges of living without legal identification – whether digitised or analogue – those who do have digital identity sometimes face a range of other risks.