Registering the finger print of a voter during a ceremony launching the new general census in yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire Photos: AFP/Getty Images

Passport to growth

By By Wendy Atkins | Published:  28 December, 2009

Advances in biometric identification technology could be used by African governments to improve social and political inclusion and spur economic development on the continent

Biometric and smart card technologies have moved out of the realms of science fiction to become common place in the developed world. Now developing economies are getting in on the act, with sub-Saharan African governments starting to deploy them in their territories to help promote economic empowerment, drive democracy and aid economic development. Some, such as Kenya, remain at the tendering stage, but others, including Senegal and South Africa, are already in the process of deploying the technologies.

Smart card and biometric technologies are now being used in a number of locations such as for driving licences in Ghana; national ID cards in Rwanda; biometric ePassports in Côte d’Ivoire; eHealth systems in Gabon; and biometric voting systems in the Democratic Republic of Congo. African governments that decide to adopt biometrics typically opt for either face or fingerprint recognition.

“In many cases face has dominated because new laws don’t need to be passed to take someone’s picture,” says Joseph Atick, chief strategic officer of L-1 Identification. “Fingerprints are also being adopted because of their accuracy.”

But as Terry Dunmire, principal and board member at Citizengate, points out, it is vital to ensure that the needs of every part of society are taken into consideration: “Governments need to have a system in place to deal with the percentage of the population that is disabled, wounded or have lost fingers.”

“The key word is inclusion,” says Dr Atick. He believes that electoral procedures have been the main beneficiary of the technologies so far, but their possibilities are now being explored for other citizenship applications. “If you go to the bank and don’t have an ID, you might not be able to benefit from the loans and other services it can offer. So African citizens understand the implication of secure ID: having a trusted identity makes border crossing easer. They realise that driving licences that can be used as an ID for cross-border travel are important. A national ID that can be used for banking is very important and, in the long-term, ePassports that can allow Africans to travel outside their country will become important.”

This role in social inclusion can also enhance the role of individuals in the political process. “Being able to ensure the integrity of the electoral process is particularly important for maintaining democracy, holding peaceful elections and building confidence in your country among international investors,” says Paul Marin, regional director for sub-Saharan Africa at the US Trade and Development Agency.

The DRC rolled out biometric voter technology in 2005. According to Zetes, one of the suppliers to the scheme, 26m people were enrolled into the system over six months in 2005. During enrolment, citizens were issued a voter card containing their fingerprint and biographical data. The company then ran an automated fingerprint identification system to check whether there were any duplicate entries. “Having consolidated all the data centrally, we then created a blacklist with the details of those individuals who had applied for several voters’ cards. These were then taken off the voter list and the individuals were jailed if they turned up on election day,” says Ronny Depoortere, senior vice president at Zetes.

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