Everyone Counts!

The Everyone Counts! initiative was launched in the fall of 2020 with a firm commitment to a simple principle: the digital transformation of the state can only qualify as a success if everyone’s human rights are respected. Nowhere is this more urgent than in the context of so-called digital ID systems.

Research, litigation and broader advocacy on digital ID in countries like India and Kenya has already revealed the dangers of exclusion from digital ID for ethnic minority groups[1] and for people living in poverty.[2] However, a significant gap still exists between the magnitude of the human rights risks involved and the urgency of research and action on digital ID in many countries. Despite their active promotion and use by governments, international organizations and the private sector, in many cases we simply do not know how these digital ID systems lead to social exclusion and human rights violations, especially for the poorest and most marginalized.

Therefore, the Everyone Counts! initiative aims to engage in both research and action to address social exclusion and related human rights violations that are facilitated by government-sponsored digital ID systems.

RESEARCH: Empirical human rights research that investigates how the introduction of a digital ID system leads to or exacerbates social exclusion and violates human rights. Our research is based on the notion that there is inherent and instrumental value in listening to and documenting the experience of individual human beings when confronted by digital systems and to how those experiences affect their rights and dignity.

ACTION: Our presence at a leading university and law school underlines our commitment to high quality and cutting-edge research, but we are not in the business of knowledge accumulation purely for its own sake. We undertake targeted advocacy at the national, regional, and international level to ensure that digital ID systems are not used to exclude and violate human rights.

NETWORK BUILDING: Creating physical and virtual spaces for civil society organizations, as well as public and private actors, to come together to exchange information and stories, collaborate, and shape collective action on digital ID systems and exclusion of the poorest and most marginalized.

Photograph taken by ISER and used with permission.


Paving a Digital Road to Hell?

In our report, “Paving a Digital Road to Hell? A Primer on the Role of the World Bank and Global Networks in Promoting Digital ID” we sound the alarm about the dangers of national biometric digital ID systems. We identify the World Bank and its Identification for Development (ID4D) Initiative as playing a central role in manufacturing a new development consensus on digital ID. This consensus uses the language of development and human rights, but often aims to provide a form of economic identity that is delinked from legal status and rights. These new systems are of urgent concern to all of those interested in safeguarding human rights, due to the growing evidence that such digital ID systems potentially lead to severe, large-scale human rights violations.

In this primer, which draws on the work of many experts and activists working in related fields, we present a carefully researched account of what these new models of ‘economic identity’ look like. We also outline some of the key actors who have been involved in packaging and promoting this consensus, and explore some of the ways that the World Bank has helped to turn ideas about digital ID systems into realities in countries in the Global South. We conclude with some practical suggestions for the human rights ecosystem to consider in resisting digital ID systems and safeguarding human rights.

Read the press release here.
Read the full report here.

On December 14, 2022, we co-hosted an event with Privacy International and the Centre for Internet and Society to discuss some of themes in our report. You can watch the recording of the event here.

Chased Away and Left to Die

Our report, Chased Away and Left to Die, documents the wholesale exclusion of large swaths of the Ugandan population from its national digital ID system, Ndaga Muntu. It argues that the Ugandan government has sacrificed the potential of digital ID for social inclusion and the realization of human rights at the altar of national security. Based on 7 months of research together with our Ugandan partners the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) and Unwanted Witness, the report takes an in-depth look at the implications of exclusion for (pregnant) women and older persons attempting to access their human rights to health and social protection. Since Ndaga Muntu is now required to access government and private services, including to access health care and social benefits, to vote, get a bank account and obtain a mobile phone, exclusion from the national digital ID has become a life and death matter.

Below, you will find information on follow up advocacy, including strategic litigation, as well as further details about our report, a short documentary, a press statement and individual profiles of victims we spoke with.


Strategic Litigation in Uganda

On April 25, 2022, a coalition of civil society organizations in Uganda, including our partners the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER)Unwanted Witness (UW), alongside the Health Equity and Policy Initiative (HEAPI), filed a lawsuit against the Government of Uganda alleging that the national digital ID in Uganda, commonly known as Ndaga Muntu, has become an exclusionary barrier that violates women’s right to health and older persons’ right to social security. This lawsuit draws on the extensive evidence documented in the report released last June by our Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at CHRGJ, ISER, and Unwanted Witness, Chased Away and Left to Die: How a National Security Approach to Uganda’s National Digital ID Has Led to Wholesale Exclusion of Women and Older Persons. 

Our report found that up to a third of the adult population in Uganda remain shut out of the Ndaga Muntu system because they do not yet have a national ID, and many others have critical errors in their data or are unable to biometrically verify their identity. Despite publicly recognizing this egregious exclusion, the Government of Uganda continues to make the national ID a mandatory requirement for accessing many social services. In doing so, it excludes thousands of eligible older persons from cash assistance through the Senior Citizens’ Grant, and denies vulnerable women access to public health services. This is a violation of their rights to health and to social security.

In their lawsuit, the applicants allege that the Government of Uganda has violated its obligations under the Ugandan Constitution, national legislation, and international human rights law to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to health and the right to social security. Given that exclusion from these rights is often a matter of life and death, applicants argue that the Court must urgently provide declaratory relief that recognizes the exclusionary and discriminatory impact of the mandatory national ID as a violation of human rights. To provide an adequate remedy, they request that the Court compel the Government to allow alternative sources of identification, and grant a structural interdict, or supervisory order, to ensure that remedial measures are put in place immediately.

No person in Uganda should ever be denied access to life saving social security or health care because they lack a national ID.

A press release can be found here and a brief summary of the litigation along with Frequently Asked Questions can be downloaded here.

NETWORKIG: Workshop Series — How to Resist Exclusion from Digital ID in Africa

In early 2021, we organized a series of workshops in partnership with the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Open Society Justice Initiative on the topic of digital ID and exclusion in Africa. The workshops invited human rights activists from twelve African countries to come together and discuss how the advent of digital ID systems is impacting their work and their communities. Participants came from civil society organizations working on a diverse range of issues—including health, education, social protection, and social justice—but found common ground in recognizing that digital ID and digital governance brings the potential to generate significant exclusion and human rights concerns. Each workshop in the series aimed to open space for discussion of personal experiences and viewpoints, opportunities to learn from external experts and other participants, and joint strategizing about what actions human rights activists can take to resist exclusion from digital ID systems for the most poor and marginalized.

If you are interested in hearing more about this series or participating in future workshops, please contact Katelyn Cioffi at katelyn.cioffi@nyu.edu.

Report Resources
The Many Faces of Digital Exclusion in Uganda

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