Identity — a factor in digital utopia?

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Amidst the chaos that is COVID-19, and the slow but very steady encroachment it is having in Nigeria, one thing’s for certain. Millions of people need help from the State. But the State can’t help them, because, to put it bluntly, the State doesn’t know who they are, where they are, or how to get support to them. We just know that “they” need help.

Around the world, social services are under more pressure and scrutiny than they will have ever experienced; virtually no-one is immune to COVID-19, both in terms of health, and in terms of support. In the UK, various economic stimulus packages have been rolled out, and whilst I am sure they are not perfect, tens of millions of people + businesses will receive some sort of Government aid during the crisis. How? Because the Government can, largely, track and pinpoint who needs help. In Nigeria, our record-keeping systems are mostly archaic and even the systems that are digitized [BVN, KYC, Driving License, Passport] are fragmented.

Different audiences and segments of society require different communications. For example, in the UK, those who are considered to be “high risk” during COVID-19 [those with an underlying health issue or over the age of 70] were all issued with a text message:

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The UK government is able to roll out mass communications, at ease and at relatively little expense, via SMS, directly into the hands of those who need it most — because they know who they’re talking to. Because we have no data on our large, spread out, and largely unaccounted for population in Nigeria, the Government literally doesn’t know who they are speaking to. This level of societal exclusion, in its tens of millions, is more glaringly obvious than ever before during this current crisis. So what should we have done to anticipate this?

We need to bring people into society, include them and know who they are. Unique identity serves a number of purposes, the primary one being social inclusion, which is paramount and an important hurdle, before we start even considering financial inclusion and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Identity — inclusion, social inclusion and, of course, financial inclusion

With financial inclusion, I also mean a better means of taxation here in Nigeria. Now, taxation is a tricky one, especially when trying to reconcile it with a social security system [or lack of it]. It is clear that Nigeria has no real or scalable social security infrastructure, partly because our ability to tax the population is almost impossible. This can be contrasted with the fact that the vast majority of the population are unlikely to want to become part of the tax system, because they can’t see what they will get as part of the deal. No social security(social inclusion) = why should they pay? But how will we build a social security system, even a rudimentary one, if we don’t develop a more sophisticated and scalable taxation model, that allows for the building of trust and transparency? This is the ultimate chicken and egg / Catch-22.

I can only hope that the case for biometric data and a deeper, more complex understanding of our people, is initiated in the wake of COVID-19. The use cases for this are screaming at us. We need to target those in need. We need society to support those who cannot support themselves — don’t forget, over 60% of Nigerians live day-to-day and have no cushion for crises. We need to plan for appropriate medical care [especially in a country where 20% of the population is 60+], improved insurance and better travel systems too.

All of this requires strong leadership. To achieve just a small percentile of the above, we need to be able to elect the right people into office; those who want to drive home social change for the millions. Yet even voting itself is an unwieldy process in Nigeria, one that would be greatly improved if we knew and had access to our people. If we had biometric data readily available on the population, voting processes would be far more secure, and the cost of holding elections would drop significantly. No need for stuffing ballot boxes at polling stations, and queues stretching into their thousands. We should be looking actively at the technology available to us to use mobile infrastructure to deliver future elections. Change starts at the ballot box [or, mobile phone].

Using technology to capture the essential data of Nigerians is going to have such an impact; understanding people’s income levels and the level of financial assistance they need in times such as this will be crucial to delivering support where it’s genuinely needed. We can check in and monitor the health of the population — are we OK? What do we need? Where should we focus our attention? Technology is often believed to be void of humanistic qualities, but I think that in this instance, it’s the reverse; technology, through the collection of biometric data, can be used in a humanitarian sense. We are living through a humanitarian global crisis now — we can literally learn the lessons and write the case studies in real time to ease the pressures people are facing.

This isn’t me being overly idealistic or simplistic; even if we did have stronger, more robust social infrastructure, we would of course still be affected, by COVID-19, but not to the extent that I think we are looking at. Perhaps New Zealand and Sweden are examples of Western economies that have tackled this challenge with some degree of success, but most others [including US and UK] have suffered hard; but Nigeria continues to suffer harder. Unnecessarily so.

The opportunity to capture and understand the data of our people is within our reach; technology allows us to scale everything — if invested in and applied accordingly, biometric data will provide us with a digital Nirvana, so we can improve upon our efforts for pandemics or social crises like the one we are in the midst of today. Biometric data allows people to validate themselves within the societal framework; it increases trust in the system, it gives more freedom, it allows so many more people to be included in society, and it also allows for personalization and the ability to perform simple processes — faster, cheaper, safer.

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