Digital Identity: empowering individuals or a continuity of colonialism?
In this blog post I will introduce a question: are there benefits to exploring digital identity innovations in humanitarian aid and social protection, through the historical lens of colonialism? My aim is not to answer that question for the reader, but to give the reader the space to ask themselves if this type of analysis can provide any benefit to them in their work in social protection.
First, I will run through some recent advances in digital identity, explaining what problems these innovations aim to solve, and how successful these strategies have been. For this, I will focus on the 121 Consortium Direct Cash Aid project in Kenya, and the Sustainable Development Goals Impact Accelerator (SDGia) Digital ID Pilots in Turkey.
Then, I will introduce Mirca Madianou’s concept of ‘technocolonialism’ as an analytic through which to view recent developments in digital identity. I will then introduce further sub-questions derived from the concept. I believe the reader can take these questions in a direction that is more relevant to their own work than I can. I also hope these questions are not taken as subtle assertions – they are certainly not intended as such.
Recent Developments in Digital Identity
Without officially recognised identity documentation, individuals face immense difficulty in interacting with state authorities, or private institutions such as banks (Gelb & Clark, 2013). Similarly, without official documentation in disaster and crisis situations, individuals can face barriers to receiving effective aid (Humanitarian Innovation Platform, 2021). These issues were a decisive factor in the creation of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9 – to attain a legal identity for all (Indicators Report, 2021). In recognition of these issues – and in pursuit of SDG 16.9 – social protection and humanitarian actors have been working toward the creation of new and enhanced digital identity solutions.
An example is seen in Kenya, where an innovative pilot project took place through a partnership between the 510 team of the Netherlands Red Cross (NLRC), the Kenyan Red Cross (KRC), the British Red Cross (BRC), the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), the IKEA foundation, Safaricom, Tykn, and M-Pesa (Slavin et al. 2021). The pilot explored uses of digital identity systems in low-connectivity settings, the implementation of Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) systems, and interoperability and responsible data use (Ibid.). Key findings from this project were that SSI (at this stage) is inoperable in low-connectivity settings, and that digital identity deployment in the humanitarian sector is ‘severely constrained by the operating culture within humanitarian organisations and their own lack of digital literacy’ (Ibid.). From an interoperability standpoint, the pilot found that it cannot be assumed that all organisations desire digital interoperability, in no small part due to a lack of trust between organisations (Ibid.).
Similar developments have been explored at the SDGia in Turkey. It is first worth noting that the SDGia was jointly established by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to “generate market-creating innovations for refugee and least developed country populations” (Ibid.). In this project, Gravity, a common technology partner to humanitarian organisations, used their decentralised identity platform to “enhance humanitarian coordination through a digital wallet for educational credentials” (Ibid.) for displaced people who had already attended vocational training and Turkish language courses. The project had some positive outcomes, helping refugees to “acquire and prove their education and training credentials” without “sacrificing data privacy” (Ibid.). However, it was also found that the pilot furthered patterns of exclusion based on “unequal levels of access to mobile phones and digital literacy” which usually disadvantaged women (Ibid.).
With these developments in mind, I will now introduce the concept of ‘technocolonialism’ as a potentially useful analytic through which to view advances in digital identity.
Technocolonialism and Digital Identity
Mirca Madianou has developed the notion of technocolonialism to analyse how ‘the convergence of digital developments with humanitarian structures and market forces reinvigorate and rework colonial legacies’ (Madianou, 2019). Through this concept, Madianou traces the continuing influence of colonial legacies on humanitarian organisations’ use of technology.
Technocolonialism ‘shifts the attention to the constitutive role of data and digital innovation processes in entrenching inequalities between refugees and humanitarian agencies and, ultimately, inequalities in the global context’ (Ibid.). The theory understands that ‘phenomena like displacement, migration, refugee camps, humanitarianism as well as the development of digital technology itself are steeped in colonial relations of inequality’ (Madianou, 2020).
Madianou’s theory understands that there are multiple actors in the delivery of aid, and that they often share competing priorities: humanitarian organizations, donors (which she cites as typically national governments), host states and the private sector (Ibid.). Further, Madianou elaborates five ‘logics’ which represent the ‘parallel and often conflicting agendas’ of these different actors (Ibid.). Whilst elaborating these logics, I will pose sub-questions related to the two brief case studies from Kenya and Turkey.
1. The logic of humanitarian accountability, which assumes that more advanced technological solutions will allow affected communities to hold organisations to account. On this, she cites the belief that digital identity solutions based on biometrics are assumed to empower humanitarian subjects.
- Is this logic reflected in the findings from the case studies?
- Does the ‘lack of digital literacy’ in humanitarian organisations influence the way in which affected communities are able to hold organisations to account?
- Does the ‘lack of digital literacy’ in humanitarian organisations influence said organisations’ ability to gain informed consent?
2. The logic of humanitarian audit, which recognises the ability of biometrics and other advanced technological solutions to fulfill donor requirements of robust audit trails to counter low-level fraud.
- Do donor audit requirements compete with the interests of social protection/aid recipients?
- Which advances in digital identity exist primarily to serve donor requirements? Which exist primarily to protect the rights of beneficiaries? Does the primary purpose matter, or is it only relevant to look at the full suite of impacts?
3. The logic of capitalism, which explains the entry of business interests and private vendors into the humanitarian space, particularly as they relate to digital identity solutions such as biometrics and blockchain technologies.
- In both projects, private interests were engaged (i.e., GSMA, IKEA Foundation, Gravity, Tykn).
- Do business working on SSI – an attempt to increase data sovereignty and security – present the same ethical challenges for humanitarian organisations as other businesses?
4. The logic of solutionism, which is the idea that technology is the best method to solve complex social problems. Madianou claims that it is this logic that ‘explains the prevalence of technological experimentation and hype’ seen in programs such as the Building Blocks scheme in Al Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.
- These technologies do solve certain problems in service delivery. What other, non-technological solutions may also work?
- Is it ethical to be piloting projects that (as in Turkey) were eventually found to further patterns of exclusion based on gender/technical literacy?
- Is it inevitable that, eventually, everybody will be more or less technically literate, and so it is just a matter of time before problems of illiteracy are no longer problems?
5. The logic of securitisation, which reduces aid recipients – particularly refugees – to a security threat, allowing governments to justify partnering with aid organisations in digital identity programs to monitor said threats and control borders.
- What new pressures would humanitarian organisations face from governments if digital identity sharing took place between organisations?
- Will governments attempt to use the immutable ledger to track whether refugees have already passed through a safe third country?
It is the interaction of these logics, Madianou claims, that produces technocolonialism and perpetuates colonial legacies. For example, as Ruha Benjamin (2019) writes, biometric technologies may have underlying algorithms which may codify bias on a racial or gender basis– and these racial or gender biases have their roots in a colonial past. Do you agree with this? How does your answer affect the work you do day-to-day?
The primary purpose of this blog post has been to pose questions about advancements in digital identity within the analytic of technocolonialism. Undeniably, in the world as-currently-constructed, access to an officially recognised identity is vital for accessing services and protections. It is also clear that evolutions in digital identity are occurring rapidly, whether via biometrics or blockchain technologies like self-sovereign identity. Such rapid, transformative advances can be overwhelming and confusing; in this situation it is often worth slowing down and asking some questions. Perhaps, then, this is a fitting final question: who is it that has the time and space to reflect on these questions, and then get to work creating a world that reflects their answers?
- Benjamin, R. (2019). Race After Technology. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
- Gelb, A. and Clark, J. (2013). Identification for Development: The Biometrics Revolution. CGD Working Paper 315. Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.
- Humanitarian Innovation Platform (2021). Digital IDs in the humanitarian sector: what’s the big deal? [online] Available at: <https://hiplatform.org/blog/2021/5/19/digital-ids-in-the-humanitarian-se... [Accessed 12 Oct. 2021].
- Indicators Report (2021). 16.9 by 2030 provide legal identity for all including free birth registrations – Indicators and a Monitoring Framework. [online] Available at: <https://indicators.report/targets/16-9/> [Accessed 13 October 2021].
- Madianou, M. (2020). Reproducing colonial legacies: technocolonialism in humanitarian biometric practices. In: Expert Workshop on Race, Technology and Borders. [online] UN Special Rapporteur E. Tendayi Achiume, pp.1-5. Available at: <https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Racism/SR/RaceBordersDigitalTechn... [Accessed 6 October 2021].
- Madianou, M. (2019). Technocolonialism: digital innovation and data practices in the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis. Social Media and Society, vol. 5(3) https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305119863146, p. 2.
- Slavin, A., Putz, F. and Korkmaz, E., (2021) Digital Identity: An Analysis for the Humanitarian Sector. [online] Geneva: Oxford Centre for Technology and Development, p. 20. Available at: <https://solferinoacademy.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Digital-Identity... [Accessed 20 October 2021].