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Digital Civil Registration Can Reduce the Number of ‘Invisible’ People and Bring Kenya Closer to the SDGs

Kenyans register Huduma-Namba. Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 3 2020 (IPS) - A recent opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “Kenya’s New Digital IDs May Exclude Millions of Minorities” raises an issue that the UN is passionate about: that the pursuit of sustainable development should leave no one behind.

In seeking inclusivity of all in the development narrative. Kenya is making important gains in making the invisible, visible.

The court ruling that gave the Government the green light to continue with digital civil registration- if implemented in an inclusive and non-discriminatory manner, could assist many citizens who have come to be known as ‘invisible’ people – including stateless persons, people with disabilities, and people living in rural and remote areas. This will improve inclusion and access to services.

Most of these groups continue to miss out on a range of key services such as schooling, bank accounts, obtaining a mobile phone, getting a job, voting and registering a formal business.

Estimated to number one billion globally, they are ‘invisible’ because they have often failed to get registered, with UN member states adopting SDG Target 16.9 “to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030, with consensus that identification is a key enabler of many other SDG goals and targets.

Several organizations including the UN and the World Bank Group are currently supporting civil registration and ID-related projects that will enhance and strengthen the transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness of governance and the delivery of public services and programmes.

For years, Kenya has had unique challenges in the registration of citizens, especially due to a migrant population, and those with historical and cultural ties to relatively unstable areas, particularly on the border with Kenya. The terrorist attacks by the Somalia-based Al Shabaab have often led to stricter requirements for proof of citizenship by those living in the bordering counties. This is an issue the national and county authorities must come together to resolve.

I have seen first-hand the scourge of cross border terror attacks in Kenya and we are mindful of the concerns of the state security apparatus, but the primacy of Human Rights must be safeguarded.

A compounding factor is that many Kenyans do not have birth certificates as many mothers give birth at home. In the absence of birth certificates, registration officers have had to demand for other documents as proof of citizenship, demands that have been deemed discriminatory. This is challenge and must be resolved. Birth registration is important because it’s the first step in ending statelessness in the country. As per UNHCR, it is estimated that there are at least another 14,000 stateless people in Kenya seeking nationality who need help.

There have been cases of non-citizens acquiring IDs by corrupting government registration officials.

The issue of registration of minority ethnic groups has been raised by human rights groups for a long time. Embracing of digital technology per se is not in itself the problem. Indeed, a past report by the Kenya National Human Rights Commission proposed the fast-tracking of a bio-metric system of registration among other policy and administrative recommendations.

While biometric registration is expected to reduce cases of fraudulent issuance of IDs, there are also genuine fears that digital technology can increase many of the risks associated with collecting and managing personal data, and this is one of the issues being canvassed in the on-going court case. This underscores the need to implement the digital registration respecting rights to data protection and ensuring participation of the public for their buy in.

The high court emphasized this in its ruling on 31 January 2020.

To its credit, the government has already acknowledged the challenges related to civil registration, and the Minister for Interior Mr Fred Matiangi has been remarkably hands-on in reforming the department.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has launched the blueprint themed “powering Kenya’s transformation” one of whose pillars is the use of digital services and platforms to generate more revenue; reduce waste; improve Government services and efficiency and increase citizen participation.

Despite its unique challenges, Kenya cannot be an exception and will need to join the rapidly growing number of countries implementing new digital ID systems. Kenya is indeed a leader on this biometric ID project and as such the example that Kenya will undoubtedly influence others within the region. This is why the UN in Kenya is dedicated to an ongoing process of support to develop the country’s capacity, institutions, laws and regulations to make the registration process inclusive and fit-for-purpose in the digital age.

This support is in line with the Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development that were developed in 2017 and endorsed widely by the UN and international organizations, non-governmental organizations, development partners, and private-sector associations.

As Kenya prepares for its national elections in 2022, and with over 1 million voters coming of age every year, a robust digital identity can dispense with the need of voter registration which is time consuming and expensive

While speaking to Joe Mucheru, the Cabinet Secretary for ICT, Innovations and Youth, he said, “as emphasised in the court ruling, we will together with all key partners, including the UN to develop rigorous security systems and regulations for data protection”.

The UN in Kenya is committed to partner with the Government to avoid risks of exclusion and discrimination, especially those of the poorest and most vulnerable and leave no one behind.

Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Kenya.

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