Deep Dive: How Digital ID Eases Access To Government Services In Africa And Asia

An estimated 1.1 billion individuals worldwide lack basic ID credentials, according to the World Bank, and that number significantly increases when counting those with poor-quality IDs that cannot easily be verified. These individuals are often excluded from essential services such as healthcare and voter registration because they lack the means to identify themselves. Moreover, 78 percent of that 1.1 billion live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and more than half live in economies classified by the World Bank as lower-middle or low. 

Supplying the under-credentialed is a key priority for international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank. The former made providing a legal identity for every person on Earth by 2030 part of its Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the latter plans to invest more than $750 million in ID-related projects. These programs have so far seen some level of success, too, as the aforementioned 1.1 billion figure represents an improvement from the 1.5 billion individuals that lacked identity credentials in 2016. 

Digital identity plays a key role in these efforts. Such systems can be distributed much more efficiently and used in a wider variety of situations than physical identity documents, especially as government services increasingly move online. Several countries in Asia and Africa are currently working on such initiatives and taking diverse approaches to implement them. 

Digital ID Initiatives In Africa 

The World Bank has contributed to several digital ID projects in Africa, including the National Population Registry of Morocco and Nigeria’s NIN program. The latter has implemented a rather unusual application for digital identity: e-Yellow Cards, which replace the paper certificates that medical centers hand out after vaccinating individuals for mosquito-borne yellow fever. These certificates are required for crossing many international borders in Africa by proving immunity to the disease if the bearer is from a country — like Nigeria — where it is endemic. 

Fake certificates are unfortunately rampant in Nigeria, and border crossing officials are known to produce them on the spot in exchange for bribes. The e-Yellow Cards counter these security risks by attaching Nigerians’ vaccination statuses to their digital identities. Individuals can register online and take their certificates to a government office to have their vaccination statuses logged. 

Sierra Leone is taking a different approach to its national ID system by leveraging blockchain to keep identities secure. The program is the first of its kind in Africa and is being developed in coordination with the UN and U.S.- based nonprofit Kiva. The Sierra Leonean government expects to roll the program out in two phases: digitizing all the country’s existing identity data, then assigning each citizen a unique identification. 

Digital ID Initiatives In Asia 

Singapore is arguably the leader in government-issued digital IDs in South Asia, launching a national digital identity (NDI) system in 2014 as part of its Smart Nation initiative. The program is an extension of SingPass, the city-state’s government-issued ID card system that was first introduced in 2003. The NDI was introduced to smartphones last year as the SingPass Mobile app, which enables Singaporeans to use fingerprint scans, facial recognition, QR codes and software tokens to access government services. 

Singapore’s latest move in digital identity is SG-Verify, a new government-developed tool that will enable citizens to use the NDI for non-governmental functions like registering at hospitals, opening bank accounts or signing up for other services that require ID verification. Enrolled citizens can scan QR codes on their SingPass apps to upload their identity information to businesses, saving them from having to manually enter personal details. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency stated the feature would be live by the end of Q3 2019. The SingPass site currently lists the feature as being in trial. 

Digital ID programs are also becoming more popular in neighboring Malaysia, which recently saw its government launch its own national digital ID system. Like Singapore, Malaysia’s digital ID play is an extension of its existing compulsory ID card and aims to ease citizens’ access to online government services. The program is currently in its nascent stages and is undergoing a nine-month study that began in September 2019 to determine which model will best suit Malaysian consumers’ and businesses’ needs. 

Taiwan is another pioneer in digital identity. The country’s cabinet approved a plan in late August to issue an electronic identity card, which will serve as a national ID, driver’s license and national healthcare service card, to each of its 24 million citizens. The cards will have digital signature capabilities as well as privacy and anti-counterfeiting measures. The program is slated to begin this month and will completely replace the country’s existing national ID cards by March 2023. 

These initiatives are just some of the digital ID moves being made around the world. The number of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia citizens lacking proper forms of identification will continue to decline in the coming years if all goes according to governments’ plans.
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