Unidentified Nation Fails Social, Economic Caches

Jul 8 , 2023
By Eden Sahle

I worked with an international organization which was doing a research project on undocumented individuals in Ethiopia. We travelled across the country interviewing people and the findings were staggering.

We met individuals who did not know their ages or have identification cards. Those who managed to have one had to guess their birth date for lack of record.

International medical doctors were with us to estimate the age of individuals participating in the research. The gap between the residents' assumptions and the physicians' findings was astonishing. It showed up to two decades of variation.

Ethiopian medical practitioners speak of the difficulty of not knowing their patients’ actual age. Patients present with an illness that is typical for 40 years and above while reporting their age in the 20s; hampering the diagnosis accuracy and outcome of medical research.

Among the Ethiopians who do not have proof of legal identity is my housemaid Derartu Ahmed. Like many others in her hometown, she does not know her actual age.

She came to the capital city a few years ago to illegally migrate to Saudi Arabia. The agents assured her the process was legal but had failed to keep their promise. She destroyed her illegally obtained passport out of anger.

Before she joined our house she said to have passed through physical abuse at the hands of her previous employer. But she did not go to the police for lack of an identification card, fearing that it would backfire and land her in jail.

She has no access to the bank and has to physically travel to give cash to her mother in Jimma town. The mother does not have any kind of identification document as well.

Although it passes by unnoticed, this affects many who came from rural areas and work in the capital. As a desperate move, employers started taking pictures of such employees to trace them back in case of emergency.

Children who grow up in orphanages suffer from similar problems. They are undocumented when they join the institutions. Few lucky ones have their pictures taken which allows them to estimate their own age.

Lack of identification creates formidable barriers for citizens like Derartu and creates even larger barriers for the country. Effective governance becomes questionable without proper identification as the nation struggles to provide and receive vital services.

In a country like Ethiopia where a reported seven percent of children are registered at birth, individuals with no official identification are at a great disadvantage. They are denied their social, economic and citizenship rights. They cannot have bank accounts or receive appropriate treatment in healthcare facilities. Employers cannot trust them as they have no traceable address and are in constant fear for lack of identification documents.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to provide birth registration and legal identity for all by 2030. The Ethiopian government's initiative of a nationwide biometric digital identification system, aiming to register all eligible adults of its population by the end of 2025 has not come too late but is progressing at a snail pace.

It takes a minimum of three months to get a single identification card, which is frustrating. I believe much of the problem has to do with those who are tasked with this initiative at the Wereda level, as they do not possess the required tech skills.

Ethiopia is lagging far behind compared to countries like South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Guinea, which have already taken advantage of technology for identification systems that are easier, feasible and affordable for citizens.

They are leveraging technology, allowing people to receive services by using mobile devices to register births and biometrics. They have also applied SMS notifications to help applicants track the status of ID applications.

African countries are expanding identification systems through outreach campaigns to remote and under-served populations to increase the number of citizens with official identification.

Such broadened efforts coupled with robust identification systems have become the driving force for individuals to be able to join the formal economy. Enabling people to have civil registration can prevent several births and deaths that often go unrecorded.

Providing identification documents should be one of the priorities of the federal government. Its importance to human and economic development is undeniable. Aside from social stability and economic benefit, the system promotes the safety, security and growth of a nation while utilizing all its human resources effectively.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 08,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1210]

Eden Sahle is founder and CEO of Yada Technology Plc. She has studied law with a focus on international economic law. She can be reached at edensah2000@gmail.com.

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