Why We Invested: UN Economic Commission for Africa

November 16, 2018

Africa is on the move.

Fifty African nations recently took a historic step in a Pan-African journey that seeks to double intra-African trade by lifting barriers that divide Africa and hinder its economic take-off. Last March, African Union Member States signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Kigali, Rwanda. The AfCFTA is a flagship initiative of Agenda 2063, a visionary document that called for a united and integrated Africa. In the same vision, the people of Africa determined to put themselves on equal footing with the rest of the world as an information society by connecting Africa through technology.

In the 21st century, trade, technology, and connectivity are interconnected goals. Just as the AfCFTA will connect Africa through trade, Africa now seeks to connect markets, services, and people through technology. The goal is that residents of Senegal and Chad will be able to transact with residents of Zambia and Mauritius without friction, with trust, and without requiring that they meet physically. This will create an African Digital Common Market.

For such a vision to be realized, Africans will need to have the ability to prove who they are and make payments online. This, in turn, requires that every African have access to a digital identity. More than 500 million Africans have no official identity, which is half of the total unidentified globally. Africa cannot realize her development vision as an information society unless this gap is closed.

The UN Economic Commission for Africa, working with the African Union, African countries and businesses, and other development partners, strives to close this gap. In addition to regional integration, UNECA sees digital identity as a way to advance several other aspects of its mandate, including innovation and technology, governance, social development, and statistics. While helping to close the identity gap, UNECA will seek to address two key challenges.

First, many countries and private businesses are putting digital identity systems in place, but doing so independently. This raises costs, creates duplication, and limits the scope for the digital economy to become integrated. The UN Economic Commission for Africa would like to harmonize these efforts across countries by providing a framework for interoperability. Within countries, UNECA would like to better align civil registration and digital identity development programs.

Second, digital identity, like all technologies, requires safeguards. Left unchecked, digital identity systems can create unintended consequences, such as exclusion from basic services rather than inclusion; or increased surveillance rather than individual empowerment. Without focusing on privacy and user control, it can lead to a situation in which personal data is aggregated in ways outside of people’s control, and where the economic benefits of this data accrue not to those individuals, but to social media platforms and entities outside of Africa. Finally, there is no privacy without cyber security.

At Omidyar Network, we believe the significant economic value of identity systems can only be realized in a sustainable way if it is Good ID, inspires trust (through privacy and security), and therefore increases engagement. Good ID can lead to an increase in gross domestic product, fuel technological innovation, save money, lower institutional risks, improve trust and acceptance, increase efficiency, and contribute to financial sustainability. The AU’s Personal Data Protection Guidelines for Africa recognize this potential and seek to strengthen trust in online services and are essential for an information society to overcome such factors as ethnic fragmentation, vulnerability, and exclusion.

For this reason, Omidyar Network is proud to support the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s work with the African Union to co-develop a framework for Good Digital Identity in Africa that will make progress on challenges specific to the African context. The program has three components.

First, the UN Economic Commission for Africa build consensus on the framework through careful dialogue among African policymakers, businesses, academics, and civil society. The desired result is a set of guidelines for countries to follow, helping to ensure digital identity is people-centered, secure, integrated, inclusive, and useful.

Second, the UN Economic Commission for Africa will deliver a capacity building program for senior officials. Digital identity is a complex topic for which many African governments have not yet developed effective policy responses. Capacity building will help policymakers work through the choices involved in ID system design, deployment, and management, as well as with data protection and privacy. Leveraging African and global experience, the program will focus on:

  • digital identity;
  • mechanisms for regional harmonization [such as Europe’s electronic Identification, Authentication and Trust Services (eIDAS)];
  • how to use digital identity to accelerate service delivery, governance, data privacy, cyber security; and
  • the relationship between civil registries and digital identity.

Third, the proposed partnership calls for establishment of an African Center of Excellence on Digital Identity and Data Protection to support countries undertaking digital identity and implementing the African Union’s Personal Data Protection Guidelines as well as to develop African standards.

Over the years, Omidyar Network has committed more than $1.36 billion to for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations across five continents that foster economic advancement and encourage individual participation across multiple initiatives, including digital Identity, education, emerging technology, financial inclusion, governance and citizen engagement, and property rights. The investment in the UN Economic Commission for Africa is the first of several planned digital identity investments in Africa.

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