Digital Identities

Design and Uses

A project of the Centre for Internet and Society, India
Supported by Omidyar Network India

Are Digital IDs in Uganda a Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?

July 15, 2021

Written by Neema Iyer
and Nyamwire Bonnita

This post is a cross-post from the thematic series Digital ID Dispatches from Africa, by the Africa Portal.

In the fifth installation of the Digital ID Dispatches from Africa series, we have our second piece from a country partner who used the CIS Evaluation Framework to examine digital ID in Uganda. In this piece, Neema Iyer and Bonnita Nyamwire from the organisation Pollicy dig into exclusion risks in the Ugandan context.

Digital IDs have been widely considered as a means of improving public service delivery for millions of people around the world through the verification and authentication of one’s identity for financial, social and political inclusion. However, despite the potential benefits of digital IDs for accelerating efficiencies, convenience, transparency and accountability, especially by replacing paper-based systems, these systems have the potential to amplify harms and discrimination within society, when implemented without care and a social justice lens.

A digital ID, which is in practice an extension of existing forms of identification such as a driver’s license or a voting card, can encapsulate a broad range of data about an individual such as unique identity number, name, citizenship, ethnicity, biometric data, behavioural data, online activity and any other information as deemed necessary by the mandating bodies, including fingerprints, retina, iris scans, and DNA.

In many of the countries rolling out these ID programs, marginalised groups and the civil society organisations representing them have been left out of the discussion on the conceptualisation and implementation of the ID systems. There is little room to provide feedback on the processes to government stakeholders and little has been done to solicit the opinions of different interest groups in these countries. Developing nationwide systems is an ongoing endeavour that can undergo many iterations depending on the user experience of citizens in every step of the process such as awareness creation, registration, procurement, utilisation, loss, replacement and so on. Without this, one risks enforcing a system based on “exclusion-by-design”.

In Uganda, a number of exclusionary practices have been identified at the registration phase that specifically target marginalised groups on the basis of disability, tradition and ethnicity. For example, persons with disabilities, such as those without hands, have been turned away on the grounds that they are unable to provide fingerprints. Other countries such as Tanzania permit the use of a palm, toe prints or any other special identification mark instead of a fingerprint when fingers cannot be used due to disability. Similarly, persons in traditional marriages who are unable to produce an official marriage certificate from a church, mosque or magistrate court are unable to register for an ID without annulling their marriages.

Ethnic minorities have also been denied IDs due to exclusion from the national schedule that lists ethnic groups within the country. The Maragoli, an ethnic group living in Kiryandongo district, have been claiming recognition as Ugandans but in some counties, were denied National IDs by the National Identification Registration Authority (NIRA). Although the Maragoli were absent in the national schedule of the 1995 Constitution and the 2005 amendment, they were granted the same rights as all Ugandan citizens until the promulgation of the Registration of Persons Act 2015, which effectively retracted the IDs of the Maragoli unless they registered under a listed tribe such as the Banyaro or Alur.

Other barriers such as prohibitive distances, lack of application forms in local languages and inability to physically present one’s self at the registration office due to age or illness widen inequities in accessing an ID.

Such discriminatory practices during the registration process leads to further exclusion from service delivery for already marginalised groups. In March 2021, prior to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health tweeted that only those with National Identification Cards or National Identification Numbers will have access to the vaccine offered by the Ministry of Health in Uganda. Several prominent civil society organisations protested this action as a practice that would undermine the fundamental right to health and is in contravention to several international instruments that Uganda is party to. Following widespread objection as well as a petition filed by civil society organisations, such as ISER, the requirement for identification was withdrawn by the Ministry of Health. However, some public health facilities still ask people for the national ID.

Similarly, older persons have been excluded from Social Assistance Grants for Empowerment (SAGE) by providing incorrect information related to their age either because they are unaware of their date of birth or because they misunderstand the purpose of the digital ID. As a result, they are unable to access benefits that are vital for their wellbeing. The Senior Citizens Grant provides direct income support of $7 (25,000) shillings per month to elderly persons.

Despite the discrepancies highlighted above, digital IDs can propel development and growth within African countries. However, governments need to work together with civil society and citizens to ensure that ID systems work for all citizens regardless of gender, age, location, ethnicity and ability. By not bringing together diverse perspectives to reimagine identity management, we risk harming the most vulnerable in our societies.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA, or CIS.