A student revises for weeks for the final exam to finish secondary school, yet is barred from taking the test. A 65-year-old woman meets the criteria to receive her retirement pension, but is unable to claim the benefit. A man saves to send money home, but can’t complete the financial transaction. What do all of these people have in common? They do not have official identification.

Almost half of those living in sub-Saharan Africa — approximately 500 million people — do not have proof of legal identity.

The repercussions of this pass by unnoticed and often go unreported by the press. IDs are taken for granted by those who have them. But lack of identification creates formidable barriers for each individual affected and creates even larger barriers for the countries they live in. Without strong identification systems, countries can struggle to deliver vital services to people, eliminate duplicate or inefficient programmes, and govern effectively. Identification systems form an essential part of a society’s foundation; building a social contract between governments and citizens requires strong identification systems and reliable databases.

The Peru success story

To get the long view, looking at countries like Peru provides a roadmap of what is possible. In the 1990s, the country was emerging from years of political turmoil and economic instability. Peruvian leaders made identification a priority. Starting from an incomplete voter-registration database of adults, Peru built its national ID database with political will, a constitutional mandate and the use of biometric technology. Today, Peru has achieved nearly 99% identification of their population, including children. Because the system is built on up-to-date technology, it is interoperable: A person’s identity can be authenticated across different programmes and agencies. This access to government-funded social programmes is a powerful tool to reduce poverty.

On our continent, some countries like South Africa have achieved noteworthy identification systems. In other countries, like Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Guinea, leaders have already begun to take advantage of technological advances that make identification more feasible and affordable. People are leveraging technology to leapfrog over old-fashioned, paper-based approaches, improving the delivery of identification services by using mobile devices to register births, biometrics to ensure uniqueness and SMS notifications to help applicants track the status of ID applications. They have embarked on ambitious plans to expand identification systems via outreach campaigns to remote and under-served populations, which will increase the number of citizens with official identification.

By continuing to broaden these efforts, robust identification systems will be a driving force for individuals to be able to join the formal economy. Today, in sub-Saharan Africa, 20% of those adults without a bank account say that lack of documentation is a factor. When individuals can access financial services, they can obtain credit and loans that help their businesses grow.

Making the voiceless heard

Official identification can also help protect families from the impact of economic and environmental shocks, as well as other crises. World Bank financing for social-safety nets in Africa amounts to $6 billion. In Mauritania, for example, the World Bank’s social protection project supports the government’s social registry, which includes the poorest households nationwide and is used to select beneficiaries for the national social-transfer programme. The social registry and national transfer programme serve these households, even if some members have no official identification. However, in such cases, they provide information and support to promote their enrolment into the national civil registration system.

Identification provides a foundation for other rights and gives a voice to the voiceless. The World Bank, through the Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative, is committing at least $500 million to African countries striving to make progress in providing proof of identity for better service delivery and regional integration. The best news is that this investment can be paid in savings provided by the system itself. Take India, for instance, where the establishment of a unique ID number system named Aadhaar ensures benefits and subsidies reach only the intended beneficiaries; by doing so, it has generated enough savings to pay for its establishment within a few years.

We must find the political will to take full advantage of this transformational agenda. By investing in official identification, governments will run more efficiently and better deliver services from the beginning to the end of our lives. This foundational tool will reap benefits for our children, and our children’s children, for years to come.