Africa can do it (ep. 11)

March 17, 2023

In this episode, Cornelius Williams, outgoing global director for child protection at UNICEF, shares insights into identity and birth registration from his 30-year career in the sector.

Africa can do it

Cornelius Williams, outgoing global director for child protection at UNICEF, shares insights into identity and birth registration from his 30-year career in the sector.

20 African countries are on track for Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 says Williams – to provide legal identity for all by 2030, including birth registration.

But much still needs to be done. African nations have found robust approaches to provider further coverage and now need to work together to share these breakthroughs across the continent.

African governments are learning the significance of civil registration as a foundation for a modern state, and civil registry departments are better staffed and placed. How can they be better connected with ID departments?

The cost savings and efficiencies have never been more obvious. But can any country have a fully digital system? Are countries able to resist vendor lock in?

Are governments being overpromised systems by private vendors?

01:20 “If the world puts their efforts together, there would be nobody in this world who will be born and die without an identity.”

02:05 15 to 20 African countries on track for SDG16.9 by 2030, asking governments to double down on efforts

03:30 “If you want a national ID system, if you want to have e-governance, if you want to have a modern governance system, you need identity. If you need identity, you need birth registration to be the breeder document”

04:00 States realize they cannot have modern system without ID

05:10 The financial cost to a state for not knowing their citizens

05:40 COVID 19 – countries did not know who or how many were dying. How can you help people if you do not know who needs helping?

06:40 Rwanda has shown you can have a home grown solution for identity schemes

06:50 Cannot have aid agencies coming in and giving you your system

09:20 Yet to see a country that has a fully digital – not digitized – birth registration system

10:40 Egypt as example of lifelong identifier. Digitise the systems.

11:50 “One of these sad things that we have seen during my career is that people are selling this hype to political leaders in other countries. We have to be the bad guys to go in and say to them, okay, you can digitize parts of the system, but you cannot have a fully digital system.”

13:00 Systems are being oversold, but registrars are getting smarter with legal knowledge, but sometimes private firms go straight to the top

14:50 Civil registry has gained more status, but often still not linked to the national ID. ID departments end up being well resourced whereas CRVS which provides the breeder documents

16:30 MOSIP and OpenCRVS

19:20 Concept of twinning, getting other department such as health, education involved to encourage CRVS. Nigeria has developed a way to do immunization and birth registration at the same time

21:00 Empowering others to be able to register births requires legislative change

22:00 Senegalese health workers as document collectors ready for birth registration at the mayor’s office

24:25 In Chad, birth registration staff work alongside vet care staff to target herder communities when they visit towns for markets

25:20 Schools are good for mop-up campaigns, but birth registration should not be a requirement to attend

26:50 Difference between awareness of use of ID in urban and rural areas

28:00 Need to end gender discrimination for birth registration

30:00 Universal birth registration should include migrants and refugees, but can delink the registration from citizenship

34:00 The cost effectiveness of departmental collaboration

35:50 Legal ID, birth registration as transformational, momentum building as part of public sector reform

40:00 Build systems – don’t be distracted by the technology

Find out more about the ID16.9 Podcast and the importance of legal identity at

Produced and hosted by Frank Hersey at Biometric Update

Frank Hersey [00:00:04] Welcome to the ID16.9 podcast, where we examine the many issues relating to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, the goal aiming for legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030.

I’m your producer and host Frank Hersey. In this episode, we’re exploring multiple themes around legal identity and sustainable development goal 16.9 with a very special guest -special not just because of who he is, but also because he’s actually just retired, yet has still agreed to come on the show.

Cornelius Williams, outgoing former global director of child protection at UNICEF, welcome to the show.

Cornelius Williams [00:00:48] Thank you.

Frank Hersey [00:00:49] And I couldn’t help but notice that to coincide with your retirement, we’ve had some excellent news. The World Bank’s ID4D division has updated its overall estimate of the number of people worldwide without official proof of identity, down from around a billion to 850 million. Obviously, that’s a fairly complicated figure in there. But I just wondered, did it feel like the right moment to retire? Which came first, your retirement or that figure?

Cornelius Williams [00:01:17] Well, actually, I think it’s the right moment to retire because I’ve given all that I can over 30 years. But at the same time, it’s good news. It shows that actually, if the world puts their efforts together, there would be nobody in this world who will be born and die without an identity.

Frank Hersey [00:01:43] And that gets straight to the heart of it. And you said recently that all being well there are 20 African nations on track for the 2030 goal of SDG16.9. And I just wondered how you feel about that at this stage in your career as well, this progress among African nations?

Cornelius Williams [00:02:06] So I joined actually the same group of development actors who have working with governments all over the world. Mm hmm. About ten, 15, 20 years ago, to look at making sure that every child is registered at birth. During that period, there were very few countries that had this kind of coverage. They were countries with single digit coverage. For us to be at the point where we have 20 African countries who are on track – all we ask of the government is to double down on the strategies that we’ve seen paid off. It’s a it’s it’s a significant moment for me. I couldn’t have wished for more. Right.

Frank Hersey [00:02:53] And I mean, there’s many different issues which go up to make why a country is registering births or not and the changes but I wonder just overall along your career, what do you think has been some of the more significant changes? Because I’ve not been covering this for very long, but even in the few short years I’ve been looking into it, it seems to me that the whole issue has become more important to governments. I just wonder what how you compare things when you first started to know how important ID and birth registration is?

Cornelius Williams [00:03:30] So first of all, actually, if you want a national ID system, if you want to have e-governance, if you want to have a modern governance system, you need identity. If you need identity, you need birth registration to be the breeder document to fit into the national identity system. What has changed? Government has recognized that they cannot run their states without a modern ID system. That’s why the political will is there, the technology is there. The strategies, the proven strategies out there.

So previously, this was seen as ‘oh, we have to register children because of this convention on the Rights of the Child. Article seven,’ right? Every child has to have an identity. No, it’s not only about Article seven. It’s about whether you are interested in knowing your citizen and whether you have to have a modern state.

So whatever you do about building the governance structure in your country, it’s not going to function if you do not have an ID system, you’re going to have masses of people who are unbanked who are out of the financial system. You’re going to not be able to provide services to a mass number of people, the health services, the education services, right? They would not be able to access service. You will not know your citizen and the cost, the financial cost to you.

For every time – if we take the election – in registering your people. Every election. Right. Is high. So governments have seen that they could bring down their financial cost in anything that has to do with ID. And have a system of from birth to death. Okay. An example: During COVID, people struggle about the mortality rate. They didn’t have the denominator. They couldn’t register the deaths. Mm hmm. So how do you address a public health emergency if you don’t know who you try, who are you trying to address? Okay. Who are the people who need the support?

Frank Hersey [00:05:58] All those articles at the beginning of the pandemic about how Africa is doing things differently could so easily just be a lack of a lack of live data. You know, we’ve talked a little bit about the technology and you’re saying it’s the technology is there. What do you think about the fact that some of the technology and systems could be coming from some of the countries that are looking to increase their registration rates rather than being technology from abroad?

Cornelius Williams [00:06:26] So this is one of the things we are discussing in our last discussion on the webcast that we did with ID4D. We feel that there should be a homegrown solution. Rwanda has shown that you can have a homegrown solution. South Africa has a homegrown solution. Right. So definitely, first of all, an identity system, it’s a big government system. You cannot have aid agencies coming in and giving you your system. This has to be owned, managed and developed by the government.

And what we have seen is that when you have contractors who come from outside to give you a closed system, the source code, they don’t give you the source code, Right. So they make you dependent on that company. That is why the Rwanda solution, we would like to see African countries coming together to replicate that and support themselves and have a community of practice. And we are convinced that Africa has the talent.

Frank Hersey [00:07:37] And so, for example, with Rwanda and this home-built system is that system itself could not be used elsewhere and in other countries. Are there any talks of installing that same system as a as a perhaps as an open source or without vendor lock-in approach?

Cornelius Williams [00:07:55] So the exciting thing that is happening actually now is there is going to be a discussion around this in the ID4D conference [this is the ID4Africa conference in Nairobi] in May. Right. Okay. So in the idea for the conference in May, we are going to have the session where and we will be discussing African countries have indicated an interest to discuss how they could come together. The different countries share experience in developing similar minimum products like the Rwanda product.

Frank Hersey [00:08:31] We’ll have to keep an eye on how that goes. I wonder how you see the importance of digital identity within the whole the whole goal, because we’re looking at primarily birth registrations and birth certificates. And then there’s been this acceleration in the movement towards having an overall digital identity, perhaps protected with biometrics. I was wondering, do you think we’re doing the right thing, going straight on to digital identity, a full identity of everything, or do you think there’s a need to carry on just making sure that children are being registered the basic birth certificates at the beginning instead?

Cornelius Williams [00:09:14] So the evidence is out there. It’s been played out. Okay. One of the things we are convinced of as well is you have to have a strong civil registration system, the birth registration. And what we have seen is we have not seen a country that has a fully digitized digital birth registration system. You can digitize the system. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Okay. But a fully digital system, we have not seen that. And we believe that actually, if you go for a fully digital system, the infrastructure in Africa cannot support it. And then there are all kinds of privacy concerns that needs to be addressed.

So what we have seen people digitizing parts of the system, but the paper base is still there. Mm hmm. Right.

Now on to the digital identity. If you don’t have that breeder document that flows in to the digital identity, then you will have a system where you do the digital identity, run a massive system and lock everybody. So nobody – they could get in, but they couldn’t get out because you need the death certificate to flow in to take this people off the road. So actually, everybody can get in here. Right. So what we’re seeing is a life cycle system. Mm hmm. Life to death. Right. And a country like Egypt has shown it how it can be done. So in Egypt, you registered, you have your unique ID. That unique ID takes you all the way until you die.

Frank Hersey [00:11:01] So the idea of having a unique personal identifier as we’re seeing, you know, Kenya looking at it at the moment, keeping that one number, for example, to track you across systems throughout your life.

Cornelius Williams Yeah.

Frank Hersey So it’s more a case of digitizing the systems, which would support that through a person’s life and their events, rather than providing some sort of digital ID to individuals.

Cornelius Williams [00:11:25] Yes. So you would have and in the end, you can have a digital card. It’s the system. You can’t have a total non-paper based system. Mm hmm. Okay. It’s not going to work. No country has it.

Frank Hersey [00:11:40] Yeah. Where we’re seeing, you know, we see things from, you know, from Singapore and Estonia and places like that. And. But there’s obviously still a long way to go in replacing entire entire systems.

Cornelius Williams [00:11:53] Yeah. So if Estonia. Okay, the leader in the world. Right. Cannot have it. Okay. And so sometimes we feel. One of these sad things that we have seen during my career is that people are selling this hype to political leaders in other countries. We have to be the bad guys to go in and say to them, okay, you can digitize parts of the system, but you cannot have a fully digital system.

Frank Hersey [00:12:26] And do you think that is that is well understood? Because when I’ve been at events with the private sector, they’ve been there and government representatives mainly from across Africa, I do very much get the sense that companies, maybe European companies, are selling an idea of transitioning straight to digital identity and everything is going to be digitalized and access to government services is going to be backed against people’s ID, which will be biometrically checked. Do you think there’s still some sort of overselling, perhaps, of the potential of systems?

Cornelius Williams [00:13:02] Yes, we feel there’s overselling. And actually, one of the things is the register generals, they have national IDs are getting smarter. Hmm. Right. So previously, it’s the same thing. Okay. That happened all over Africa, right? You know, Africa did not have a well-educated government workforce when independence happened. Now, in most African countries, there is a well-educated governmental workforce in ministries of finance. In ministries of health. Okay. Right. Who are in the policy level? So over my the years I’ve worked in this sector, I’ve seen the maturity and the professionalization of the workforce. So most of the registrar generals have a legal background, and most of them have staff who are technically competent technologically. So they know about vendor lockdowns. They know if you’re overhyping. Unfortunately, sometimes they are bypassed and people go straight to the top. Mm hmm. And they have to have the painful lesson, the painful experience of learning that it’s not possible. We’ve seen that in several countries. I won’t name the countries, but we’ve seen that in several countries where they had to walk back from a fully digital ID.

Frank Hersey [00:14:30] And then looking at government departments because, you know, for anything to get done, you know, the minister of a certain department might need the ear of somebody more senior. Would you say that over the years, CRVS or identity departments have gained more status within governments in developing countries?

Cornelius Williams [00:14:50] Yes, they’ve gained more status, but we still have a problem. We still have a problem where we have the civil registration, sometimes not linked to the national ID. And sometimes so the national ID, which would be a government priority – you  mention countries like Kenya, Okay, we know several countries, well resourced – but the civil registration is not well resourced. So they do have a problem with a breeder document to get it. So that’s the understanding we now trying to promote amongst governments to policymakers to know that actually you cannot have a national I.D. system without that breeder document linked. So we are now talking about civil registration and ID.

Frank Hersey [00:15:40] Yes. So they come as more of a pair now. And I suppose there’s you know, they’re they’re a little bit more sexy now which for governments, for presidents in terms of what they could potentially go on to achieve for government in future. I was wondering what you think of platforms such as MOSIP for keeping out vendor lock in, and especially if that goes on to integrate further with different CRVS platforms. You know, we’re seeing pilots and registration beginning in several countries in Africa. I was wondering what contribution they might make to overall well, to the ID16.9 goal, what sort of contributions they could make to legal ID?

Cornelius Williams [00:16:27] So when you speak about MOSIP, we also speak about OpenCRVS, which are two of the open solutions actually, that it’s out there. And we feel they have a major contribution to make. We are watching how these systems have been adopted by government, the community of practice around it. So if we could be able to, as we said before, bring all the players together to be able to support each other in Africa, we’ll have a community. You have practice and to have many more viable products and to have products that don’t have vendor lock-in. It’s going to it’s going to play a tremendous role in the effort to achieve SDG16.9.

Frank Hersey [00:17:17] You don’t think there’s any issue with that not being a, you know, a homegrown platform, coming in from from outside?

Cornelius Williams [00:17:27] Yeah. So when we speak about homegrown platform, we don’t expect actually these platforms to be… and you have to start from scratch. But it has it has to be an open source. Right. And it has to be the development and the enhancement of the product. The operationalization of the product should be owned and developed by Africans.

Frank Hersey [00:17:54] Well, MOSIP themselves have said that they are hoping that as their platform progresses and more countries start using it and adapting it, developing it, they will become obsolete themselves as this sort of overall supplier of it in know countries will be able to adapt it so much to their own needs that it will become entirely their own platforms in the future, which is, you know, a little further down the line, but it’s still an exciting thought, I think.

Cornelius Williams [00:18:21] Yes, Actually, the best development intervention, the best development assistant is when the originator works itself out of a job. Right. Yes.

Frank Hersey [00:18:35] So I know that there was the big meeting in Addis last October, the COM6 meeting among the registrars. And there’s something that I find interesting about that. Actually, I don’t feel like I’ve heard that much from the meeting yet. But one thing that was interesting was the idea of twinning and the involvement of health departments and education in the whole civil registry and identity effort in a country. I was wondering if you could expand on that at all, whether there’s any developments coming along that with whether it’s about linking systems or securing more budgets? Yeah. I just wondered what you thought about twinning with health and education or other departments.

Cornelius Williams [00:19:23] So actually I’ll take the health one. It’s exciting. Okay. In January, I was in Nigeria and I was sitting across the table with the directors of the Nigeria Primary Care development agencies, the primary health care guys, and they have worked out what it takes to do an immunization campaign and to do birth registration at the same time. Now, this is not one of those kind of erm, I don’t know how to put it, but those development things that somebody comes and says, ‘tack this on’, all this big government systems where they do a task analysis of what it takes for this to be done, how many staff is required, what is the technology that is required because the immunization is worked out. They do micro planning for it, so they have to do the plans right. They have a proof of concept that it can be done. Mm hmm. So if the immunization rate in Nigeria is at a certain level and the birth registration rate, which was at a lower level than the immunization rate, you can have a job. The curve, the graph in the curve could shoot up. In Ivory Coast, Côte d’Ivoire, we have seen that improvement. Right. In several countries, register the child where the child is born.

So what governments are doing because a birth registration, a birth certificate provable document, It’s a legal document. They have to make sure that whoever is registering the child, you have to change the policies. You have to change the legislation. You have to change the regulation where they are not able to do it, the staff are finding a workaround. Hmm. So I was in Senegal and in the commune system, it’s the mayors who are responsible for the registration.

Frank Hersey [00:21:33] I’m going to interrupt here for a moment in the edit because listening back, it might sound like Cornelius is saying male as in male or female. When I say the word, my accent is also not internationally clear, mayor. The word is mayor, as in the civic leader of a town. And in Senegal, they can be quite localized. Back to Cornelius.

Frank Hersey [00:23:03] And so will there be a plan then to replicate the findings in Nigeria and the approach and try and help other countries roll that out to.

Cornelius Williams [00:23:13] We have a significant number of countries who have recognized that twinning is the way to go. In fact, in Nigeria, they are now discussing and they’re planning to see how they could work with a national population commission to make sure that registration is done, even at the health facility, not only through immunization. So there are discussions going on in a lot of African countries. I don’t have the exact number, but this is happening in Côte d’Ivoire, as I said, in Cameroon, actually it’s happening in Ghana. The discussion is going on. So a lot of countries have seen it. Another exciting thing actually, is even for animal health.

Frank Hersey [00:23:59] Animal health?

Cornelius Williams [00:24:00] Yes. Yeah. But with a country like Chad, where the livestock is so important, registration takes place when the the the population. Okay. The cattle herders bring in their cattle for veterinary inspection and health care. Okay. Right. Registration is taking place.

Frank Hersey [00:24:25] So, like you might get a community health worker doing registration for a baby, so a veterinary health worker might double up and do humans as well just..?

Cornelius Williams [00:24:37] No, the veterinary worker is looking after the cattle, but the whole community, because it’s a pastoral community, comes to that spot. And with some time at that spot, then you send somebody to register all their children.

Frank Hersey [00:24:53] Yes. Yeah. I mean, that makes sense. And I can just imagine people putting together a sort of calendar of where people might be heading to, you know, town marketplaces to set up stall there for the next income. Yeah, I’m sure there’s going to be some some really interesting country and region-specific approaches to this coming over the over the years. What about the education side of things?

Cornelius Williams [00:25:20] So for education, education is more suitable for mop up catch up campaigns. Okay. So to make sure that every child who is in school is registered. What we don’t want to do is to make it mandatory, because if the if the service is not available, you know, you are not able to address the supply side, you should not make the demand side suffer. Mm hmm. Okay. So that people turn up for the services and you have not put in all the logistics, all the elements that would make it operationally accessible to this population. But it is good for mop up.

Frank Hersey [00:26:03] Well, I think that brings us to a good point as well with the demand side, because we’ve been talking about government side and technology and platforms. I was wondering over the years what you’ve seen in terms of a change in demand for registering children or registering at all for an ID legal idea any age, and how important you think that still is to try and persuade people to come forward. You know, does it still have to be your child can’t go to school if he or she doesn’t have a birth certificate? You know, there’s still sort of levers to force people. Can they still going to be effective or SIM registration or do you think we need to keep looking, just creating a demand and other ways for people to want to get ID for themselves and their children.

Cornelius Williams [00:26:51] The demand side actually is more and more especially you have to take a look at the demographics again, urbanization is taking place. And people in urban areas know that you need an ID. Right. They know the value of an ID. You cannot access service. You cannot get a driver’s license. You cannot open a bank account. Right. You cannot even use some of the social services – the health, education. So the private use of the birth certificate, once it’s known by the population, they will they would seek it out. Now, if they they do not find it useful, there is no private use for it. Okay. I can speak to them and preach to them about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 7, Well, your child will have to have an identity. They have to make a decision of the opportunity cost. And it’s this opportunity cost that we are telling them, your child have to have an ID. Mm hmm. And that message is getting out. So there is an increase, but we still have to continue to address it. The second point is there is still in some countries where there are gender barriers. Where a woman cannot register her child. Mm hmm. Okay. We have to make sure that we rectify this and reform these laws that have put up these gender barriers.

Frank Hersey [00:28:25] Yeah. We’ve seen, even from the latest report from ID4D that in some countries the gender divide is actually increasing in terms of the numbers of men and women who are registered. In most, it looks to be shrinking. But there’s that. You know, there’s still a handful where it’s actually increasing. So there’s still work to be to be done. On that point about mothers being able to register a child on their own or not. Do you think there’s do you think it’s important to link a child’s and a parents I.D., whether it’s one or both? And what what sort of impact could that start having?

Cornelius Williams [00:29:01] Well, we’ve seen the impacts because you have some systems actually, where it’s a family tree. Mm hmm. Right. So I was in some of these Southern African countries have that. And so what they do is to make sure that the parents are giving an identity, that the parents are registered in the civil registration system so that the database is updated, it’s comprehensive. If you do not have that system in place, then you could be depriving the child of the opportunity to have an ID.Mm hmm. So, again, it comes back to that point. If you have any policy that you want to put in place, make sure that the supply side is addressed.

Frank Hersey [00:29:44] In terms of the different groups. There’s obviously another group that we’ve not mentioned, and that is refugees. Obviously, that’s only a small part of the overall global figure for people without ID. But as these systems have matured and countries have brought in more policies for dealing with their own people’s IDs and also sometimes for dealing with refugees and migrants, do you think that that is still an area of concern for reaching the SDG16.9 around the world?

Cornelius Williams [00:30:17] Well, we are talking about universal birth registration, right? And so no one should be left behind. Okay. So for the refugees, what we have said is that governments should have an inclusive system that registers refugees. A child has a right to be a name and an identity to be registered. And what we are doing is to delink the registration of that child from the citizenship. The country can have its citizenship laws. But you must register that child. Mm hmm. So every child in your territory, you have an obligation to have an obligation under the CRC, the Convention on the Rights of the Child to register their child. So we have seen some countries now working to develop an inclusive system that would cover the refugee population and that would address the issue of statelessness.

Frank Hersey [00:31:16] Do you think that that is a positive trend at the moment? Do you think this is something that is going to spread to more nations to bring in an inclusive approach. Do you think there’s momentum building there?

Cornelius Williams [00:31:28] There’s momentum building, but it’s not the “wave”. Okay. We need more speed in that wave. Right. Okay. So that the wave doesn’t crest before it covers all of these countries that should be having an inclusive system. Mm hmm. We still have to get governments to understand that registering the birth of a child is not the equivalent of handing citizenship to a child. Okay. So the two get conflated and we trying to make sure that that’s not the case, that you de-politicize this issue of people, movement of people from the registration of children.

Frank Hersey [00:32:22] Yes. I suppose this is an area where technology can help and hinder. It can very much keep people separate. As systems get more sophisticated, it can create a way to keep people separate. But then also it can de-politicize, you know, as long as people are registered at all there’s much more chance for accessing accessing services.

Cornelius Williams [00:32:44] Yes. And what government would not want to know who is on their territory? Right. You know, it’s just good government, good governance.

Frank Hersey [00:32:54] For knowing who is and especially around election times, whether there’s often the most controversy around populations and populations’ eligibility. Technology can help in both both directions there.

Cornelius Williams [00:33:08] Yeah, certainly.

Frank Hersey [00:33:09] And another area as well to consider is legislation. And we’ve mentioned it, we’re allowing certain people to be empowered to register births, for example. But I was wondering if there still needs to be more registration higher up between government departments to to help to help make CRVS data more useful for other government services and to help them collaborate more. Do you see that? Do you see any instances of improvement for legislation at the sort of departments or level?

Cornelius Williams [00:33:47] So we recognize there is a political economy around it. Yeah, right. So everybody has their mandate, everybody has a budget line. But more and more, we are able to show governments that it’s more efficient and cost effective to have that collaboration. So we’ve already spoken about the collaboration between the health sector and the civil registration sector, and they are signing MoUs, they’re changing laws, changing policies, changing regulations, okay, that they’re training staff to be able to do that. We feel there’s opportunity also in departments that are dealing with social protection. Mm hmm. To have one registry, you have to have that. We feel it’s there. Also, with term elections. So the idea the UN legal identity agenda was to tell government that you have to have these sectors collaborate and have one ID system. And the cost we the cost is very clear that the cost savings for your government is enormous. Okay. Why do you have to every election, spend a couple of million dollars registering people all the time? Yes. Okay.

Frank Hersey [00:35:10] Yeah, we just just saw it again with Nigeria. But again, that was home. Home grown technology, though, for the electoral roll this time. So progress in that respect. So with all these different aspects to birth registration and legal identity at the individual level and legislation and technology and international collaboration, do you think there’s enough momentum now for this to to just keep going on its own? Are we going to see more progress towards the goal for 2030? Or do you think it still needs a lot of help from international organizations?

Cornelius Williams [00:35:54] Well, it needs help from international organization, but it’s not like the old way of doing business. Legal identity, civil registration, birth registration is a transformational intervention. It’s big government systems. Mm hmm. So you cannot run it on charity? Mm hmm. Okay. So somebody cannot come in and pay the staff. Okay? The government system has to be sustainable. Mm hmm. Right. So we have seen the momentum building on this government system.

What we are concerned about is when government starts having fiscal challenges, will they continue to invest in the system and to not to get seduced by salesmen who are selling some fancy technology? Mm hmm. Okay. It’s grunt work. It’s work that you have to build your public sector. Mm hmm. Okay. Calls for public sector workers. Calls for public sector reform. So. The registrar generals and the managers of national identity are getting it, but they still have to work out How do you continue the supply of those cards? How do you continue the supply of the computers? How do you replenish the workers who you’ve trained and are now left for greener pastures? Right. You know, so like you said about Nigeria Homegrown solution, I’m not familiar with it. But when you do the systems, if you want to sustain the momentum, you have to look at it as a public sector reform.

Frank Hersey [00:37:44] Yes, a long term public sector reform. Without departments and governments becoming distracted when something else comes along, because this still needs a lot of work by a great many. Well, maybe not a great many more years, but for a good few years still.

Cornelius Williams [00:38:01] And then you have to sustain. And when you get to the maintenance stage, as we usually say, okay, making sure that the systems are there and the systems are functioning.

Frank Hersey [00:38:12] On reaching retirement now, I see you didn’t want to do another quick seven years up to 2030. Will you still be keeping an eye on things, though?

Cornelius Williams [00:38:27] And. Well, yes, this is one of my areas that I am of passion. Right. Okay. And I feel the stakeholders have asked me repeatedly to stay engaged. Okay. And most probably I’ll be like an elderly statesman. One of the things I would love to do is definitely because I intend to go back home to Sierra Leone and Sierra Leone as a system that is very promising, is to see how can I contribute, how can I provide advice?

Frank Hersey [00:39:04] I’m hoping to speak to Sierra Leone, actually, because I think it was the head of CRVS from Sierra Leone who said back at ID4Africa that he said there was the possibility of the benefits of merging CRVS and ID because ID is getting all the attention I need, the one that everyone’s talking about and looking at poor old CRVS that’s a little bit overlooked and seems a bit to dusty and old. So he’s trying to inject some some interest there. And obviously there’s the there the MOSIP trial as well.

Well, I’d just like to say thank you very much. I think it’s a great moment at the moment. You know, this the ID4D figures are a little complicated, but they did they did seem to show that of the drop of 150 million people, 100 million of those are down to birth registrations. So it’s it feels like there is momentum around the world, obviously, not just in Africa. We’ve been talking quite all about Africa. I just wondered whether you had any more any more comments or motivation for your successor in the role.

Cornelius Williams [00:40:14] So one thing definitely we may say is a couple of decades ago or like two decades ago, birth registration was seen as a campaign: print forms, give governments, provide fuel, provide allowances, go out and campaign. In 2023 there’s a consensus. It’s about system strengthening, system reform. It’s not about campaigns.

Frank Hersey [00:40:44] Well, that is quite a transformation right there.

Cornelius Williams [00:40:48] Yeah, that’s it. So I just want to say to the stakeholders out there. Focus on the system building. Don’t be distracted and let’s don’t be distracted by the technology. Don’t be distracted. Just focus on the system. And let’s address this issue of the comprehensive system from life to death, from birth registration to the national ID to the death registration.

Frank Hersey [00:41:19] Well, you heard it here first from Cornelius Williams, outgoing former global director of child protection at UNICEF. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Cornelius Williams [00:41:30] Thank you for having me.

Frank Hersey [00:41:33] Cornelius Williams there with reflections, ideas and advice. We’re extremely grateful to him for talking about his work when he just got away from it all. Though, we’re not convinced that the last we’ll hear from him on these issues.

To find out more about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 16.9, to listen to more episodes or get the full transcripts of our shows, go to the ID16.9 podcast website at and see if you think we’re on track for legal identity for all by 2030.