Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 56: Championing Identity for All: Empowerment and Progress in Africa

Episode 56 guest speaker Dr. Joseph Atick

Championing Identity for All: Empowerment and Progress in Africa

with Dr. Joseph Atick

Dr. Joseph Atick is a recognized thought leader in digital identity. With a career spanning several decades, he is a founding father of the digital identity community and Executive Chairman for ID4Africa.

Episode summary

Join guest host Colleen Elliott, as she engages in a compelling conversation with Dr. Joseph Atick, Executive Chairman of ID4Africa. Together, they delve into the impactful work of ID4Africa, a pioneering movement dedicated to propelling digital identity adoption across the African continent. Explore their insights into the evolving landscape of identity in the age of digital innovation and its promising future.

Championing identity for all: Empowerment and progress in Africa

Join guest host Colleen Elliott, as she engages in a compelling conversation with Dr. Joseph Atick, Executive Chairman of ID4Africa. Together, they delve into the impactful work of ID4Africa, a pioneering movement dedicated to propelling digital identity adoption across the African continent. Explore their insights into the evolving landscape of identity in the age of digital innovation and its promising future.

Pioneering the future of identity with digital innovation

In a rapidly evolving digital landscape, the concept of identity verification has taken center stage. Dr. Joseph Atick is a recognized thought leader in digital identity, economic development, data protection, and privacy. With a career spanning several decades, he is a founding father of the digital identity community.

In 2014, Dr. Atick co-founded ID4Africa, a movement focused on advancing digital identity solutions across the African continent. The movement aimed to address the challenges of inclusivity and invisibility, particularly in regions with limited access to identity services. Through collaborative efforts involving governments, the private sector, development agencies, and civil society, ID4Africa sought to create an identity ecosystem that empowered individuals, improved access to services, and supported economic growth.

Today, Dr. Atick serves as the Executive Chairman of ID4Africa, responsible for the overall strategic direction and execution of the movement’s mission. “It’s the premier platform for sharing best practices and experiences in ID4D (identity for development) around the world and for peer learning on digital transformation matters among African countries” Dr. Atick shares.

The movement drives progress through platforms like the ID4Africa LiveCasts, which facilitate knowledge sharing and research on various aspects of digital identity, including the impact of artificial intelligence and responsible governance. “The LiveCast platform… focuses on bringing in the identity community and the brain trust to try to share knowledge and best practices, and it’s heavily followed by the community” Dr. Atick explains. “But our biggest asset and platform is our annual general meeting, which is held in a different African country each year.” he continues.

During their upcoming 2024 event in South Africa, a turnout of 1,800 to 2,000 attendees is anticipated. Among them, 800 senior government officials will be hailing from all over Africa. Dr. Atick explains “it’s really one of the largest events in its scale, but also the quality and the intensity has been incredible. This is definitely a pillar that we make available to the development community to accelerate the country and the continent action towards total digital transformation and digital identity.”

Expanding coverage of identity systems

Dr. Atick cites multiple indicators as evidence of progress, “Coverage of identity systems has advanced across the continent… Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda Ghana and others grew their coverage significantly” with the impact of reducing the number of people without identities. For instance, Nigeria’s biometric national register grew from 7 million to 101 million after joining ID4Africa.

“We’ve been able to help bring into the inclusion fold hundreds of millions of previously invisible people and to help governments build more transparent practices and accelerate their identity-enabled digital transformation platforms,” Dr. Atick explains.

Dr. Atick’s work also emphasized the utility of identity for service access, linking the two from the outset, “we emphasized that identity had to be useful for it to have an impact”. He explains “we also pushed for the establishment of data protection, and privacy legislations and governance frameworks. And we can say that as a result of that work, over half of the countries in Africa during the last decade, adopted the appropriate frameworks.”

The push for cost transparency curtailed exploitation and fostered competition, leading to reduced deployment costs and the emergence of a robust identity marketplace in Africa. Over the last decade, Dr. Atick’s shares that the ID4Africa initiatives have “been able to help bring into the inclusion fold hundreds of millions of previously invisible people, and to help governments build more transparent practices and accelerate their identity enabled digital transformation platforms.” 

Accelerating the impact and adoption of digital identity

In the past, identity management was often confined to administrative bureaucracies, lacking a developmental focus. Dr. Atick recognized the potential of identity as a catalyst for progress and broadened stakeholder involvement to accelerate growth. The ICT sector and development agencies joined the effort, enhancing foundational ID systems and providing funding based on sound principles.

The private sector’s dynamic evolution played a significant role. While commercial interests were always present, the sector matured by developing interoperability frameworks responding to concerns about lock-in issues. Open-source and standards-based solutions emerged, fostering interoperability, and expediting digital identity adoption.

Civil society, previously excluded, now actively contributes to the dialogue. They hold governments accountable and advocate for transparency. With government, development agencies, the private sector, and civil society collaborating, each with their roles, the African ID ecosystem has grown significantly, driven by a collective effort that leverages diverse strengths.

“If you put together government, the development agencies, the commercial sector, and the civil society, each one has a role in this ecosystem, and each one has contributed to the achievements and the accomplishment and the growth of the ID ecosystem in Africa,” Dr. Atick explains.

Challenges in developing and operating digital ID systems in Africa: Capacity, infrastructure, and awareness

In the current context, Dr. Atick identifies three primary challenges that African nations face in building and operating digital ID systems.

The first challenge centers around capacity. Dr. Atick explains “Africa lacks the capacity for planning, execution, and maintenance of these systems. This is a structural problem.” Recruiting and retaining civil servants becomes difficult due to salary disparities with the private sector. Nigeria’s successful approach, forging partnerships with local companies for system management and service delivery, provides a model for other countries. Dr. Atick elaborates, “Today, as a result, there is a very rich and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem of startups and medium-sized local companies that are servicing the digital transformation needs of Nigeria.”

The second challenge revolves around infrastructure, specifically ICT infrastructure investment, the limited access to affordable smart devices and related digital skills. Countries like Kenya are taking steps to assemble smartphones domestically and promote digital skills through various initiatives, aiming to make a dramatic shift in access and usability.

The third challenge involves a lack of general awareness among the population about the transformative potential of digital identity. Public awareness programs, including initiatives like International Identity Day are crucial to bridge this gap. Addressing these challenges in the coming years promises to accelerate the continent’s progress in the digital identity landscape, resulting in a significant impact.

Striving for interoperability: A bottom-up approach to digital identity alignment in Africa

The current status of digital identity alignment among African countries presents both challenges and opportunities. Dr. Atick shares his perspective “I would say, thus far, no attempt has succeeded in getting alignment among the various African countries on digital identity, despite the fact that African Union has a working group on interoperability, in anticipation of a future need, brought about by the African Intercontinental Trade Agreement.

So that may be bad news, but I would say that’s because we’re thinking of a top-down approach on alignment. The fact that it hasn’t succeeded is not necessarily bad news, in my opinion. We may be looking at the wrong approach.”

In practice, countries independently adopt best practices advocated by organizations like ID4Africa, the World Bank, Microsoft, MasterCard, and the traditional identity industry. This organic coherence leads to de facto alignment, even without a Pan-African agreement.

Dr. Atick explains “Our experience over the years shows that the bottom-up approach works much better in Africa, because it’s more responsive to what each country needs now, and they do not need to wait to get consensus and agreement and signature and political will at a Pan African level.”

Embracing this organic evolution, African countries can continue on their individual paths, eventually converging into an interoperable space. This approach offers the potential to achieve alignment that’s rooted in practicality and tailored to the unique needs of each nation. “Every year, we continue to raise the issue, we’re much more excited about an actionable path than a political path. So, we’ll continue to do that, and we’re seeing the fruits of that discussion,” Dr. Atick explains.

Annual General Meeting (AGM): Key takeaways on digital identity development in Africa

The ID4Africa AGM represents the Movement’s most extensive channel of impact, and this year was held in Nairobi, Kenya. Dr. Atick shared several noteworthy findings which emerged from this year’s workshops. A predominant theme was the importance of viewing identity as a type of digital public infrastructure that encourages collaboration among diverse entities.

Several key issues surfaced:

  1. Reforming legal frameworks: The workshops confirmed that reforming legal frameworks governing digital identity is intricate and sensitive. Many African countries grapple with outdated laws dating back to colonial times, which hinder progress. The need for case-specific efforts to address these legal challenges was emphasized.
  2. Privacy and data protection: A growing number of countries recognized the importance of prioritizing privacy and data protection. A new perspective emerged where data empowerment took precedence over traditional data protection. Shifting from data protection to data governance, emphasizing user consent, became a prominent point.
  3. User-centric approach: Governments are adopting user-centric approaches to identity solutions, departing from the past practice of dictating citizen requirements. This shift is driven by understanding user needs, habits, and preferences. This change mirrors the customer-centric approach found in the private sector.
  4. Civil society as partners: Inclusion of civil society as partners from the project’s inception was highlighted as crucial. Ignoring their concerns can hinder or halt projects, as seen in Kenya’s Haduma Namba project. Engaging civil society through open dialogue has been transformative, with previously opposing groups now endorsing new digital identity approaches.
  5. Private sector’s role: Governments have embraced the role of the private sector in driving identity verification platforms, acknowledging their value in creating use cases and innovation. Identity authorities are now focused on enabling the right regulatory environment for private sector involvement, which promises a vibrant digital identity ecosystem.

While numerous insights were shared, these highlighted points stand out as significant indicators of the evolving landscape of digital identity development in Africa. Dr. Atick explains, “We’ve emphasized and learned the importance of investing in a diversity of identity verification platforms within the DPI framework. Things like verifiable credentials, federation, and going away from the model of centralized, monolithic, where the control is run by one organization, to an ecosystem where there are multiple players, which play different roles that are harmonized with each other.”

Empowering stakeholders for effective change: facilitating harmony, collaboration and peer-learning

Over the past decade, Dr. Atick’s perspective has shifted towards a bottom-up approach, favoring the empowerment of regional stakeholders rather than a top-down directive. This approach involves granting agency to regional stakeholders, allowing them to influence the direction of initiatives based on their specific needs. The key is not to prescribe solutions but to assume the role of a coordinator, fostering harmony and exchanging knowledge among peers. This collaborative atmosphere facilitates peer learning and information dissemination, forming a platform that promotes meaningful exchange.

This evolution is mirrored in the journey of ID4Africa. With membership of 48 countries, governance is channeled through appointed country ambassadors, African civil servants, who actively engage. By giving these representatives a voice, we tap into the collective wisdom of the region, gaining insights into their requirements. The strategy lies in responding to these needs, creating a responsive and impactful approach to fostering positive change.

International Identity Day

The ID4Africa movement introduced the concept of Identity Day, aimed at raising global awareness about the significance of digital identity. This initiative gained support from international organizations and African countries alike. Dr. Atick explains, “The campaign seeks worldwide recognition of September 16 as Identity Day to highlight the importance of one of the most important assets that we have, which is our identity, but also to highlight the importance of protecting that asset and the importance of making sure it’s fully utilized. We’re thrilled to see nearly 250 international organizations have joined the call, and three African countries officially adopted it as a commemorative day.”

What does the future hold for ID4Africa?

Looking ahead, Dr. Atick shares that ID4Africa are committed to ensuring identity for all by 2030, aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 16.9).  “We’ll continue this journey, and we’ll accelerate our efforts to ensure no country is left behind, and no one remains invisible by that date. I think we’re making great progress, but the best is yet to come, in my opinion,” he concludes.

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