This week’s essay is from Robert Karanja, a Director of Responsible Technology at Omidyar, where he leads Omidyar’s work in Africa. I’m really excited to share more about what he’s been working on!
Omidyar Network generously provides funding for the Reboot Fellowship; this week’s essay is independent of that relationship.
⚖️ How Lack of Public Participation Can Crash Digital Technologies: My Huduma Namba Experience
In recent years—and likely accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic—many African governments have adopted digital technologies to support a wide range of functions. That includes improving decision making and national security capabilities and generally creating greater efficiencies in government operations and interactions with citizens. In many cases, governments have procured these systems with little to no public participation. But public participation should not be optional: given the constellation of concerns around digital technologies, it’s essential.
Kenya’s Pursuit of Digital ID: A Case Study in the Need for Public Trust
In 2019 Kenya implemented an ambitious digital identification system called Huduma Namba. It randomly assigns a unique and permanent personal identification number to every resident, either at birth or upon enrollment in the system. An individual’s ID number stays with them for life. Each person’s Huduma Namba is associated with a unique identity number.
Everyone enrolled in the system is supposed to be given a Huduma Card, which is intended to facilitate access to various government services and act as a travel document for use within the East African region. The card has an electronic chip that stores personal data, with the goal of eliminating the need for other forms of identification.
The Huduma Namba digital identification system is a case study in the importance of building public trust and embracing public participation and education as a core element of implementing new digital systems—especially one that carries such high stakes. It also illustrates the critical role of Kenya’s evolving civil society ecosystem—a coalition of groups that are finding their voice in advocating for inclusive digital systems that place a premium on privacy and data protections.
Early one Saturday morning in November 2019, my children and I visited the Chief’s office near our home in Nairobi to register for Huduma Namba. The Kenyan Government had announced that the registration time period was about to close. They raised the issue of levying fines for failing to register on time and, more importantly, noted that people who were not registered would be unable to access basic government services. That included utilizing national health insurance, social security, and education programs; recording births and deaths; and paying taxes. The message from the government seemed to be that, in a sense, anyone without this digital ID would cease to exist.
When we got to the Chief’s office we found long lines of people waiting to register. It was one huge mass of chaos. Registration required collecting biometrics—fingerprints and the like—and the devices required to do so often failed, requiring 30 minutes to accomplish what should have been done in five. I also asked a lot of questions about the data that they were collecting, but not a single officer present would give me a satisfactory answer. This raised a fundamental issue relevant to any digital system: being prepared to address basic questions from citizens.
It's been 2.5 years since I registered and we still have not received Huduma cards. In addition to wondering what happened to our cards, I have many questions that remain unaddressed. Where did they store the data they collected from us? Who has access to it and how might various authorities use it? Yes, the system could make it easier to interact with the government, but what about potential uses that could undermine our rights? What are the protections that have been incorporated into Huduma Namba?
These issues could have been handled well ahead of the roll-out if the government had embraced transparency, public participation and education as part of the Huduma Namba preparatory process. They were not. And instead, officials were forced to press pause on Huduma Namaba after Kenya’s High Court issued an injunction in response to a case filed by civil society groups challenging the government’s approach.
There are several lessons that have emerged from the Huduma Namba experience—and they are broadly applicable to the many digital technologies now deeply enmeshed in our everyday lives. That includes the fact that government officials should have invested more time and resources in educating the public about the benefits and challenges of this entirely new way of assigning an official government identification. They should have conducted surveys to understand public concerns and gauge potential barriers to participation. There is much about Huduma Namba that can provide significant benefits—for individual Kenyans and the nation as a whole. But glitches with the rollout have proven costly for the government—both financially and in a loss of public confidence in digital ID systems.
That’s why it’s critical to empower civil society groups across the continent who understand the issues at stake and can provide the public with a greater voice in shaping the adoption and management of digital technologies. Civil society plays an important role across Africa in many contexts. Though several countries (Kenya included) have the right to public participation embedded in their constitution, this process is not always respected.
It was impressive to see a consortium of interested civil society organizations from across Kenya challenge the Government of Kenya in the High Court on the implementation of Huduma Namba. That included Namati, the Nubian Rights Forum, Haki Center, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, and the Law Society of Kenya, among others, come together. In an amazing show of solidarity, the civil society organizations also set up an information portal on twitter titled “MyIDMyRight” that was designed to improve the process of acquiring a Kenyan National ID Card.
The issues they raised point to concerns that should have been addressed proactively during the Huduma Namba planning phase—to the benefit of both the public and the government. That included building in protections to prohibit using Huduma Namba to:
collect DNA or Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates from any person;
compel any person to register under National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS);
issue a deadline for registration under NIIMS;
tie access to government services to registration under NIIMS;
share information collected under NIIMS with any national or international organization.
Public Participation: A Conventional Tool for Cutting Edge Technologies
Public participation is the involvement of those affected by a decision in the decision-making process; this might range from simply informing people about a potential new government purchase, regulation or law to delegating decisions to the public.
Public participation is one of the foundational principles of a democracy, which is premised on the idea that all citizens are equally entitled to have a say in decisions affecting their lives. This bedrock process is urgently needed for shaping a new era of digital systems whose success is entirely incumbent on public acceptance and participation—and that, if misused, have the power to undermine democratic institutions and values.
There are various readily-available tools that can encourage public participation when Governments are considering introducing digital technologies. Petitions, for example, are commonly provided for in many progressive constitutions—in Kenya, in Article 119. Similarly, under Article 251, the public can petition the legislature on any matter under its authority including enacting, amending or repealing legislation, or removal of public officers from office. Other mechanisms include allowing for the public to submit written comments to the legislature, or forums for face-to-face engagement like public hearings or open committee meetings.
I still firmly believe that the Huduma Namba, if implemented in an open and transparent manner, will be of huge benefit to the government, citizens and residents of Kenya. As a nation we can reap efficiencies of scale by having a reliable database of all citizens and residents in Kenya. I still look forward to the day when my family and I can all have Huduma Namba cards that meet all the basic security and privacy requirements that so many have fought for over the years.
The stated intention of NIIMS is to create and operate a national population register in Kenya as a single source of information about all citizens and foreign residents. But there are problems that now are affecting the rollout of Huduma Namba—problems that could have been addressed via more proactive public engagement as the legislation was being written.
The law grants the government the authority to collect a citizen’s biometric data, including DNA, along with GPS coordinates of home addresses and land registration numbers. It also merges several data registers, including civil and transport registers, that contain personal information of individual Kenyans. The law, however, is not clear on who is in charge of the data, what data can be accessed and by whom, or on the role of citizens in giving consent regarding how the data will be shared. Without a data protection act in place, citizen data is impermissibly exposed to breach.
Of further concern is the statement by the government that no one will access government services without a Huduma Namba ID. This will further entrench discrimination in Kenya, and further marginalize vulnerable minority groups. That includes Kenyan Somali and Nubian communities, who already face discriminatory treatment when applying for identity documents and accessing their basic rights, such as education, healthcare, and employment.
It is now evident that the NIIMS can just as easily impede rather than facilitate an individual’s ability to exercise their basic rights and that NIIMS legislation was enacted with nowhere near the level of public participation and input required of such a monumental shift in public policy.
I believe my experience and that of millions of other Kenyans would have been far better if only the Government of Kenya had taken the time to involve the public very early on in the process of rolling out the Huduma Namba system. Lots of money and time has been wasted in the back and forth that led to the High court halting the issuance of Huduma Namba. It is estimated that Kenya has spent Sh10 billion (about $90.2 million) on the Huduma Namba project, and more than 10 million Huduma Namba digital ID cards have already been issued.
It is therefore imperative that African Governments when procuring and adopting digital technologies such as Huduma Namba consider undergoing an intense process of public participation: in addition to the benefits of citizen involvement, buy-in, and ownership, digital technologies are also often big ticket items, and therefore may have national-level cost implications.
Ultimately, public participation is a key tool for promoting transparency and trust. And with digital technologies, a lack of trust can be the Achilles’ heel that dooms a project to failure—even if the technology itself is sound. Digital technologies are the wave of the future, and public engagement between African governments and their citizens is how we ensure this rising tide lifts all boats.
Robert Karanja is a Director on the Responsible Technology team, leading Omidyar Network's work in Africa, with a specific focus on leading strategic investments that advance the evolution of Digital Identification including privacy, user value and control, and security. He manages a portfolio of investments valued at $8 million and works closely with multi-laterals, Government, Civil Society, Private Sector and Research Institutions across the African continent.
What are you most excited about when it comes to your work with Omidyar in the next few years?
I am most excited about the pace at which digital transformation is taking place in Africa. Africa is the youngest continent on Earth with the largest proportion of people under the age of 18 years, human resource will be the continent’s single biggest asset in the years to come. I am convinced that the future shall belong to Africa and I am super excited to be working towards making this a reality.
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💝 closing note
Last week we had our first-ever open thread! If you missed it, check out what members of the community & newsletter readership are working on — and it’s not too late to add your own!
Reaching out to lawmakers as we speak,